by Wendy VanHatten
While doing some research for my next guide book about Napa Valley and wineries, I came across an article posted by Food & Wine about barrels. Here are some excerpts from that article.
The Benefits of Wood
Winemakers have used oak barrels for centuries. Barrels allow tiny amounts of oxygen in to help mature the wine, while compounds in the wood give the wine structure and flavor. Different oak varieties impart different flavors—like coconut from American oak, or spice from French oak—as do different levels of wood “toasting.” These days, many producers are looking for faster, cheaper alternatives to expensive barrels, like oak chips or sticks that can be floated in vats of wine.
How much technical innovation can a wood barrel really handle? Surprisingly, quite a lot. Instead of using dry heat to soften staves before shaping them into barrels, some coopers are finding that it’s easier to bend the staves in hot water. Coopers are also experimenting with hybrid barrels that combine French staves with a few American ones, as a way to tinker with flavoring.
The Life of a Barrel
Many winemakers prize French oak. But the oak trees harvested for barrels grow everywhere from Slovenia to Missouri.
Coopers season long pieces of wood, called staves, by air-drying them for one to three years.
After warming staves to make them pliant, coopers bend them to make barrels.“Toasting” the insides with a flame softens the woody flavors.
- Fermenting & Aging
Some winemakers ferment their wines in-barrel; others just use barrels for aging, from a few months to several years.
Many winemakers fill barrels more than once. The older the barrel, the more subtle the flavors.
Old barrels are sometimes sold to distilleries or breweries. Or, they’re cut in half for their next life as flower planters.