Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Oak Wine Barrels

Before they’re ignominiously turned into flower planters, wine barrels have a long and dignified life. Here’s what they do and why they matter.

Before they’re ignominiously turned into flower planters, wine barrels have a long and dignified life. Here’s what they do and why they matter.

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.

Barrel Tech
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.

California Oak Spectrum
No Oak; 2013 Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Chardonnay ($14)
Made entirely in stainless steel, this lively Mendocino white is all about pure fruit.

Old Oak; 2014 Camp Chardonnay ($15)
Sonoma winemaker Kenny Likitprakong aged this white in old oak barrels to round out the texture without contributing flavor.

New Oak; 2012 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($23)
This wine only sees 18 percent new oak, but the effect is apparent in its creamy texture and vanilla aroma.

The Life of a Barrel

1. Harvesting
Many winemakers prize French oak. But the oak trees harvested for barrels grow everywhere from Slovenia to Missouri.

2. Seasoning
Coopers season long pieces of wood, called staves, by air-drying them for one to three years.

3. Building
After warming staves to make them pliant, coopers bend them to make barrels.“Toasting” the insides with a flame softens the woody flavors.

4. Fermenting & Aging
Some winemakers ferment their wines in-barrel; others just use barrels for aging, from a few months to several years.

5. Reusing
Many winemakers fill barrels more than once. The older the barrel, the more subtle the flavors.

6. Upcycling
Old barrels are sometimes sold to distilleries or breweries. Or they’re cut in half for their next life as flower planters.

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