I lived and worked at a real Chateau in the French Bordeaux region during a four month internship at the end of my studies. The Bordeaux wine region produces world famous red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Their best wines are always aged in barrels. However, using oak barrels is expensive, time-consuming and hard work. There are machines nowadays to add a helping a hand, however the winery where I worked was too small for such equipment. Some weeks I did nothing more than empty, clean and fill barrels. Between each step I had to role the barrel from the one end of the cellar to the other, a very heavy job I may say, when an empty oak barrel weighs 50-60kg (110-132lbs).
Why do we age wine in barrels?
We have used wooden barrels for aging and storing of wine for ages. Before glass bottles, barrels were used to transport and store all wine. Nowadays, we use barrels for different reasons. Barrels are used for aging wines and to give it specific ‘oaky’ flavors. Wine, which has been aged in a barrel, can be easily recognized, by the smell of vanilla or a hint of coffee. Not all wines are fit to put in a barrel, only the wine with sufficient quality and concentration will improve by barrel aging. Besides the ‘oaky’ flavors, the wine gets more structure, or body. The big disadvantage of barrel aging is that you will lose some of the fruitiness of the wine. Very fruity wines like Beaujolais primeur or any other young and fruity wine have never been aged in a barrel.
People have tried to make barrels out of many different woods, however it never gives as good results as with oak. I’ve heard of reasonably good results with cherry and chestnut wood, however I have yet to taste one of these wines. Oak is a very strong wood, and the aromas it gives to the wine are still regarded well. The flavors given by the oak are very important. Flavors like: vanilla and sweet spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, chocolate and coffee, and a well-practiced nose can even smell caramel and freshly cut wood. However oak does not release its aroma’s before the wood has been “toasted”. This process is like the process of roasting coffee. In the case of a barrel, it is toasted by making a fire within the lidless barrel. The flames don’t touch the wood but just gently toast it. The oak will turn darker, and during this process sugars in the wood are transformed into aroma components.
As with coffee there are big differences in toast. In general three different varieties are distinguished: light, medium and high; however professional coopers (barrel makers) distinguish over a twenty. The most common toast is medium, giving sweet aromas of vanilla, chocolate and hints of fresh ground coffee. The light-toast gives less aromas but gives more structure to the wine. When I say structure I mean components who tend to give the wine more body. A highly-toasted barrel gives smoky-aromas similar to burned-toast and a match after lighting it. A wine barrel can be used for a many years, however it will lose most of its delicious aromas within three years. Therefore many wineries sell their barrels after 3-5 years of use to the brandy industry.
There are different species within the genus Quercus (oak), all with their own characteristics. The most commonly used are French and American oak. French oak is often preferred and happens to be the most expensive one. A barrel of 59 gallons (equivalent to 300 bottles of 750 ml) will cost 700-800 USD. Barrels made of American oak cost about half. American oak has the problem that its aromas quickly overpower a wine. These wines will smell only like vanilla and coffee. However it’s all about good management. American oak can make a wine as good or as bad as French oak.
The second reason for aging wine in a barrel is to make the wine develop. Wine is a product that will change taste with aging, just like cheese changes taste with age. Microscopic pores within the oak let small amounts of oxygen through. This oxygen is needed to make the wine develop and soften. Furthermore, the oak barrels provide tannins which give the wine more body and increases its aging potential.
The final function of barrel aging is to clean the wine from its sediment. Wine always contains particles of the skin, the seeds or bits of sand. These particles float in the wine, and with time slowly sink to the bottom. To remove the sediment from the wine a wine is racked. This means siphoning the sediment off of the wine and putting it into a new clean barrel. The sediment has a bitter taste, and is therefore unwanted. One can filter the wine to get impurities out, however natural sedimentation is much softer, and according to me, is better than forcing the wine through a filter.
In the wine world, barrel-aged wines are marked as high quality. This is true in most cases however, it is all about your taste. If a cheap supermarket wine fits best with your taste, don’t let yourself be convinced that changing to a more expensive barrel-aged wine is necessary. Taste is something very personal, and only you can decide what tastes best to you. I will give you some widely available barrel-aged wines that are very good in my opinion.
American Zinfandel can be very good when aged in a barrel. I lately tasted some Ridge Vineyards Zinfandels and they were all superb. A cheaper alternative is the range produced by Rancho Zabaco (try there Dry Creek Valley and Monte Rosso Vineyards range) from Sonoma.
I started story with my experiences in the wine region of Bordeaux. Almost all medium to upper range Bordeaux reds are aged in barrels. Most of you will know the famous Bordeaux sub-regions of Medoc region and St-Emilion, however I challenge you to try something new. Try to find a wine from Fronsac or Côtes de Castillon, it may be difficult to get hold of a bottle however it’s all worth it in the end.
I am very fond of the grape variety Shiraz, it’s such a powerful and aromatic red. A bit ordinary, however an excellent barrel aged shiraz is the Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz. This is a full bodied wine full with blackberries and cherries, a nice spice note of freshly ground pepper and a hint of vanilla, I love it!