Up until the 1600s, wine was always stored in wooden barrels. Now, it is more favourable to store them in glass bottles – but over the hundreds of years it seems that we have become familiar to the taste that wooden barrels imparted to wines.
So while wooden barrels strictly have no modern place in wine-making, they are incredibly popular due to their impact on taste. How do the wooden barrels have an impact on the taste of wine?
It is important to note that wine does not allow for flavour additives, like beer. Therefore, storing wine in wooden barrels has become the accepted way of infusing flavour into the drink. Wine-makers use a range of woods which, when added with wine, combine with the drink’s flavour to create a richer product, such as acacia and chestnut, but the most common is oak. Why use oak over other woods?
Benefits of barrels
Oak is popular with wine-makers, because it comes with a range of benefits. First, it adds flavour compounds, such as coconut, smoke and vanilla, to the drink. Second, it provides for the slow ingress of oxygen into the wine, developing smoother, less astringent products. Finally, it supplies a good environment for metabolic reactions such as Malolactic Fermentation, which makes wine creamier.
But what kind of flavours are we talking about here? The flavour compounds imparted by oak into wine include ‘vanillan’ and ‘syringaldehyde,’ which are evocative of vanilla. They also include ‘eugenol’ (spices, cloves and smokey flavours), ‘oak lactone’ (coconut, dill and woody notes), ‘furfural’ (evocative of burnt sugar and almonds as well as dried fruit) and ‘guaiacol’ (providing burn overtones).
Size and timing
Size and timing matter when it comes to storing wine in barrels. The bigger the barrel, the smaller amount of flavour compounds and oxygen imparted. Wine-makers traditionally use 225 litre Barriques barrels, but some go for larger Botti and Foudres barrels, which range from 1000–20,000 litres. It’s also important to note that every time oak is used, its ability to impart flavour is reduced, so this is why aging times typically vary, as they depend on what kind of wine the producer wants to create.
Typically, two types of oak are used for wine barrels. These are European white oak, found in France, Slavonia (Croatia) and Hungary and American oak, found in the US Mid-West and Missouri. American oaks are used for bold, structured wines like Petite Syrah, which are well suited to its strong flavours. European oaks are used for lighter wines, like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which need more subtlety.
Putting into practise
So what does all of this mean? Basically, oak barrels are used to impart flavour into wine during storage, creating a richer product. But the type of oak, size of the barrel and storage time can drastically affect the way the final product tastes. So let’s say you decide to buy Chateau Haut Brion 1996 from Ideal Wine Company. This is a brilliant red Bordeaux, so like all other Bordeauxs, it will have been stored for around a year in 50% new French oak barriques, allowing for a high quality product.