Grape to Glass: Barreling and Aging
History of barreling
After we stored our wine in clay pots and before we kept wine in glass bottles, most wines were stored and sold in barrels. Although we no longer store and transport wine in bottles, we’ve become accustomed to the flavors that barrel storage brings to the wine. Aging wine in oak barrels has become a vital part of winemaking today. Since the legalities around wine don’t allow for additions to flavor like orange peel or grapefruit, oak has become the defacto wine flavoring manipulation.
Most wineries will mention if the wine was aged on oak on the label. All you have to do is check!
Why do we barrel?
Barrel aging brings three wonderful things to wine – it helps moderate the oxygen, it adds flavor and it helps bring about some chemical reactions.
Barrels help moderate a slower intake of oxygen. A slow integration of oxygen creates a process that helps the wine taste more smooth.
Barrel aging adds flavor compounds like coconut, vanilla and clove. The flavor characteristics an oak barrel infuses the wine with come straight from the wood. The amount of impact a barrel has on the flavor of the wine depends on three things – the drying process the wood went through, the kind of oak tree it was made from and if the barrel was toasted. Oak barrels can be toasted by heat radiation or actual fire to create specific aromas within the wine. If a barrel was heavily toasted, it will have more intense flavors of smoke and spice.
Barrel aging helps create a perfect environment for Maloactic Fermentation – the chemical reaction that adds a creamy flavor to wines. Sometimes a winemaker will choose to ferment the wine in a barrel – instead of just aging it – this means the oak has an even more intense impact on the flavor of the wine.
That said, oak aging isn’t for every wine. Except for Chardonnay, oak isn’t generally used in white wine production. Oak aging also works to give a wine structure – giving it a certain structure. Since most white wines aren’t aged in oak, many should be drunk when they’re still young – they won’t age well. The right use of oak provides a balance to the wine.
When looking at the cost of wine, a huge factor is the cost of the barrels. These barrels come from very specific areas in Europe (France or Hungary) or the United States. On average, a new barrel costs from between $600 and $1,500. Every oak tree, which takes 20-30 years to grow can yield roughly 2 oak barrels. For winemakers to get the most bang for their buck, barrels can be used up to four times. These barrels are often called “neutral” barrels because they don’t impart a strong flavor, but still help to make the wine taste creamier and richer.
Oak aging is a very important part of the wine component of the wine production process. From the type of a barrel to the age of the barrel, oak aging is a crucial part of the winemaking process.