Why we use barrels to produce wine?


JANUARY 9 | 2019

AUTHOR | Kris Graczy

We can find using vessels for transporting of wine in early history of Our Civilisation. Going back in time to Mesopotamia, people were making a palm wood barrels. They have been using it to transport a wine thru Euphratus river. Next step in a history was creating an clay Amphora in ancient Greece and Roman Empire, which was a great vessel and it didnt cause a spillage, like in case of palm wood barrels. Some winemakers using Amphoras until nowadays. We can give a credit to Romans for start of using Oak barrels to transport of wine to farest boarders of their territory. They spread a culture of growing vitis vinifera grapes in a different regions of Europe. Someone find out that Oak has a tighter grains and its waterproof so its good for transportation of wine.

When scientists were making researches on a barrels. They found out that oak wood gives to wine some properties that can change an aromatic profile and taste of wine but its not overpowering flavor like for example redwood or accacia.

Without oak, many of a wines We know in Our times would not exist. They would not smell, taste and have same texture, mouthfeel and complexity. One of a pioneer associated for using oak barrels to purposily change a flavor of wine was Robert Mondavi. Winemaker from Napa Valley who in 60′ and 70′ of XX century made a experiments about it and was producing high quality wines, aged in a different type of barrels.

The porous nature of an oak barrel allows evaporation and oxygenation to occur in wine but typically not at levels that would cause oxidation or spoilage. A tree like oak is affected by climate. In cold, dry climates, a tree grows quickly, forming a narrow growth ring for that year. In warmer climates, a tree grows more quickly and the growth ring is wider. There are appoximately 300 species of Oak. They are roughly divided into either red oak or white oak. Red oak is to porous and not sufficienty watertight, where as white oak is more watertight.

France is dominant source of European oak for staves. Produces approximately 900,000 barrels a year and there are around 60 different cooperage comapnies producing barrels. They are leaders because in 1597 A.D. King Henry IV made a royal decree protecting oak forests, which was essential for building a ships. Most of the oak forests in France are in a centre of the country and owned, protected and supervised by the government. Two species of oak dominates 6 main forests in France. First one is Quercus Robur – deciduous and second Quercus Petraea- not-deciduous. The best coaches are made from the dense wood found in the Limousine forest. Name of a car We know as Limousine is derived from that forest which was a source of wood used to finish an interior of a vehicle. Other forest names are Nevers, Centre, Troncais, Allier, Vosges. What is interesting, to cut a tree in France for barrel production, tree need to be at least 100-120 years old, and free of sapwood. Only the center of the trunk is used for barrel making and remaining wood is used for carpentery work. October is very exciting time for the cooperage owners because tree auctions take a place. Only 20-25% of the tree is utilized to construct barrels. Staves are air-dried for 24-36 months before company would make barrels from them. That technique allowing air circulation leach the harsh tanning. No nails or glue are used in costruction of barrel.

What are the differences beetwen French and American Oak barrels?


It starts from the sawmill where French oak is hand splitted along the grain lines and American is quarter sawn, althought in recent years, French Oak techniques have been applied to American Oak barrel construction. US producing 3 times less barrels then France, about 300 000 a year. Its hard for an American winemakers to buy barrels at domestic market. Its caused by a new law in Whiskey production. To brand a destilate as a Bourbon it need to be aged for at least one year in Kentucky state, always in new American oak barrel. Winemakers need to look to buy barrels from different countries like France, Hungary, Turkey or Russia. U.S. Forests with oak trees includes Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia, Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are cooler regions where barrels come from. California is not a best place to grow that kind of oak trees because is to warm and trees will grow to fast. It would be to purous for barrels production. American Oak also known as American White Oak, Quercus Alba, wider grain, more agressive tannins. Prominent in toasty vanilla, caramel, maple sugar and toasted coconuts. French Oak profile has a sweet wood notes, smokey, spicy, cinnamon, mocha, espresso, chocolate and baking spices. Simply French Oak adds subtle flavor to wine, while American Oak is more agressive flavored. Thats why You cant use American Oak for to long during aging process cause it will overpower wine aromatic and flavor compounds.


What are the toasting levels in barrels?


Many times We hear about medium toasted or heavy toasted barrels. When I visited a cooperage companies I trully understand that each cooperage has different toasting levels. My thesis is that toasting a barrels is coming from the history of barrels production where staves with a ring where placed on a fire pit to make them more flexible. Then someone realized that barrel can be toasted inside in different levels. They heating same oak that is used for production. Depend how long You would place staves on a fire that will carmelize sugar inside the wood. That process can have variation from light to heavy toasted. In addition You can do same thing with heads of a barrels. It depend of a winemaker what style of wine he would like to achive.


What are the benefits of barrel aging?


It concentrates the wine due to evaporation, also slowly incorporates oxygen into wine. Tannins soften due to polymerization and precipitation which reducing astrigency. More oxygen is introduced by filling, topping and emptying a barrel. Wine absorbs extractives from oak surface which is softer on a mouthfeel and more aromatic on the nose. Wine growers might choose a tighter grain, thin stave barrels 22mm thick for more oxygen ingress during the wine aging (Bordeaux barrels) or a wider grained barrel with thicker staves 27 mm thick for less oxygen incorporation (Northern Rhone Valley and Burgundy). Think of the grains as a bunch of straws on end: the more straws, the tighter grain and less oxygen ingress will occur during aging. Less straws, the wider grain and more oxygen incorporation.


What is the cost of a barrel?


French oak is more distinctive on a flavor and produced from older trees. Thats why it will have higher price then American Oak. Approximately French Oak barrels cost about 1000-1500 dollars and American Oak barrel cost 400-800 dollars. You can see signifacant different in a price, also because of shipping and tax to tranfer it from Europe. What is very interesting after three years of using same barrel for aging, price of it will go down to 30 dollars a barrel. Cause every time You re-use a same barrel its loosing about 25% of it flavor profile and not much properties are incorporated into wines.

Each of us have different flavor profile and personal prefference in choosing wines..
For example if You going to a store and would like to choose a Chardonnay. You have multiple options. If You like to drink more buttery, oaky Chardonay. You should take wine aged in American Oak barrel, cause it will take aroma from that barrel. If You see on a shelf Chablis. It means that wine was produced in Burgundy, France and it was fermented in stainess steal, thats why would be more flinty on the nose and mineral on flavor. Everyone can find wine for themselve. If You didn’t find Your favorite yet, keep looking for it.


„Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s essence of civilisation and the art of living”
– Robert Mondavi

Kris Graczy

Kris Graczy

Wine Consultant


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