For millennia, winemakers have used oak barrels (commonly referred to as wine barrels) for storage, aging, and sometimes even fermentation. Today, a significant proportion of red wines – and some white wines – are still aged in oak barrels. The reasons for choosing these types of barrels are diverse. Here we outline some of the factors that make these barrels a good choice for your small business alongside other options to consider too.
Oak barrels interact with wine during the aging process in two substantial ways:
First, the structure of the barrel minimizes the presence of oxygen, allowing for slow, controlled oxygenation of the wine, which enhances its color and stability. It also helps to mellow out particularly harsh flavors.
The character imparted by a wine barrel is dependent on a number of different factors ranging from the type of oak to the seasoning of the oak staves used to construct the barrel. That’s not forgetting the degree of toasting or heating that the oak was exposed to during construction.
As a winemaker, consider the options available and determine what barrel will produce a flavor, aroma and texture profile that best suits your wine.
There are typically three types of oak barrel out there: French Oak, American Oak, and Eastern European Oak:
French oak barrels are some of the most expensive, with barrels constructed of oak from certain high-demand regions requiring an investment in the $3,500 to $5,000 range and above. At minimum, the purchase of a French oak barrel will require an investment of around $900 – if this is beyond your budget, you may want to consider a used barrel or an Eastern European oak alternative.
French oak tends to be finely-grained and porous. As a result, wines aged in French oak barrels come into greater contact with the cask material - and its flavor compounds - than other types of oak. However the resulting flavor tends to be more subtle than other oaks. French oak therefore pairs well with wines that need a subtle but complex range of flavors.
Eastern European oak barrels – which are constructed of oak sourced from forests in Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia – are cheaper than French oak barrels, requiring a minimum investment of around $600 per barrel. They are prized as cheaper alternatives to French oak barrels, as the structure of Eastern European oak is quite similar to that of French oak.
Eastern European oak, like French oak, tends to be finely-grained and porous, which allows for the subtle extraction of a complex flavor profile. There are some differences worth noting, however. Studies have shown that Eastern European oak contains less tannin than French oak, which may make it less suitable for wines with lighter tannin content.
The aroma profile yielded by Eastern European oak is also somewhat different than that of French oak, thanks its particular hemicellulose composition. Using an Eastern European oak barrel in your wine aging process may yield wine that has the characteristics - but isn’t an exact replica - of wine aged in a French oak barrel.
American oak barrels are the cheapest of the three main varieties, requiring a minimum investment of around $400 per barrel, and it is quite different in structure and character to both French and Eastern European oak.
American quercus alba oak tends to be coarse or loosely-grained and is less porous. As a result, flavor extraction is less subtle, and the flavors imparted are somewhat less complex but more intense than that of French oak. Because the flavor imparted by American oak is more vibrant, it pairs well with richer and more robust wines. Many wineries are also finding that American oak pairs well with clean, fruity wines.
Worth noting: American oak is low in tannins, and is therefore suitable for wines with heavy tannin content.
Though the character of American oak may differ depending on the source and the cooperage process, it generally imparts vanilla, coconut, and toasty flavors, in addition to a mild wooded-sweetness.
Stainless steel wine drums have recently grown in popularity as an alternative for storing and aging wine. Stainless steel is a neutral metal, which doesn’t impart any particular characteristics to the wine. That makes it an excellent choice for white wines or for any wine where the goal is to preserve the original flavor and aroma profile.
Stainless steel drums are also much cheaper than oak barrels in the long-run. Oak barrels must be replaced or repurposed after a few years of use, whereas stainless steel drums can be used for decades before they begin to break down.
Beyond production, cleaning a stainless steel drum is easier than an oak wine barrel, which tends to scratch and soak up old wine into the grooves.
Though stainless steel drums are best known for their neutral character, using one doesn’t mean you have to give up on infusing your wines with oak! That’s easily solved by adding oak chips, staves or spirals to the stainless steel drum. Some winemakers find this process gives them more precise control over the eventual flavor and aroma profile of the wine then with wood barrels.
Whether you’re looking for a drum that can age a brighter, crisper wine or looking for a cheap alternative to oak that can be reused for many decades, a stainless steel drum is worthy of consideration.
There are three common wine barrel sizes: burgundy, bordeaux, and cognac.
Bordeaux wine barrels have a volume of 59 gallons, with a belly width between 25 and 28 inches.
Burgundy wine barrels are roughly the same volume as Bordeaux. They have a volume of 60 gallons, with a similar belly width range of between 25 and 28 inches.
Cognac wine barrels are quite large, with a volume of 79 gallons. They have a belly width range between 28 - 30 inches.
Determining the right size barrel for your wine depends on how long and what quantity you wish to mature. Finally factoring in the related storage requirements is an important step to finding the right barrels for your business.
Wine barrels generally lose their ability to impart significant flavor to wine after several years of use and reuse. Purchasing used barrels once they’ve been used more than 3-4 times may not be advisable for flavoring wine. In this instance used barrels are better suited to storage or being sold to whisk(e)y producers, who can make better use of your old barrels in their aging process. Depending on your wine however, you may want to keep used barrels around the winery. Most winemakers want to avoid an excessively oaky flavor profile and not all wines can handle the oaky profile imparted by a brand new barrel. It really depends what your wine is trying to say.