Barrel Aging Wines
Wooden barrels were originally used only to transport wines, but with time winemakers discovered the positive effects of wood on wines giving birth to barrel-aging as an irreplaceable technique in a winemaker’s armory. Wines spend time in barrels to allow for gradual and controlled oxygenation allowing it to evolve and also imparting additional character to them. Wood barrels are responsible for creating some of world’s best wines; not just wines spirits like whiskey, rum, brandy too benefit greatly from barrel aging.
Types of Wood
In wines, barrel aging adds notes of vanilla, spices, caramel and charred/smokiness. Depending on what wood is being used and where it’s from, these notes change. Most commonly wood used for these barrels is Oak – French, American, Hungarian (East European). All three have individual characteristics which add a new dimension to the wines. Other varieties include, Acacia, Chestnut, Pine and Redwood.
Oak however remain the most popular choice and French oak in particular. They primarily come from the forest in Nevers, Allier and Tronçais, they are preferred because of their subtle aromas and great structuring abilities. In comparison American oak, mostly from the Midwest, offer bolder aromas and are not so strong when it comes to offering wines structure. Eastern Europe is now being looked at by the wine making community for their oak as well. Hungarian oak (Slovenian or Russian) are in between French and American and obviously less expensive compared to the other two.
There are few chemical agents within the wood that works on wine – tannins, lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. All these three types of oaks have varying elements of these agents.
Characteristics of different Oaks
French Oak: French oak add hints of aromatic spicy sweetness which can be compared to spices like cinnamon, all spice, cloves, etc. The wood has high tannin content.
American Oak: Barrels made from American oak have a higher percentage of lignin and hemicellulose offering toasted wood, vanilla, coconut aromas to the wine.
Hungarian Oak: Somewhere between American and French, Hungarian oak has vanilla, spices, along with coffee and leather.
Which of these elements become dominant in a wine depends on how much the wood has been toasted while the barrel is being constructed. Before the wood is ready for toasting it is seasoned – a period of drying and conditioning lasting around 2-3 years. The wood is then heated to make them flexible to take a shape of the barrel. After the barrel is formed the barrels are toasted on the insides at different levels. What it does is melts wood’s natural occurring sugars and also changing physiochemical structure of the barrel. The toasting ranges from light to heavy, imparting different flavors, based on the requirements of the winemaker.
There are two basic sizes of barrels – Bordeaux barriques which contains 225 liters of liquid and Burgundy barrels which hold 227 liters of wine. Some new world wineries are known to use slightly bigger barrels which hold upto 300 liters of wine. Larger sized barrels are also used; for instance Amarone wines are matured in barrels which can store upto 600 liters of wine known as Fusto Veronese. Port wines (story link) too use larger barrels.
A barrel maker is known as a Cooper and his workshop is called a Cooperage. There are a few well renowned Cooperages where wineries go to get their barrels like Seguin Moreau, François Frères and Taransaud Tonnellerie. It is said that a way a Cooper makes his barrels can greatly affect wines.
Wines Undergoing Barrel-Aging
Both, white and red wines can be oaked. It is the winemaker’s call to decide as to how a wine will develop when aged in barrels. In white wines, Chardonnay’s take to barrel aging very well. Most red wines tend to go through barrel-aging; it softens the tannins and adds a complimentary set of aromas to the wine. It is the grain of the wood which makes all the difference, whether it is tight grained or loose grained it affects the oxidation of the wine.
Some winemakers prefer barrels which have been used for other wines; these are called second used barrels. A barrel used for maturing white wines can be re-used for red wine but not vice versa. A wine barrel can often be used for more than a 100 years; however, average life expectancy of a barrel for wine making is approximately 4-5 years.
During the process of maturation in barrels some amount of liquid is lost due to evaporation this in loss is known as Angel’s Share.
These barrels are not only expensive but also put strain on the environment. Many wineries and winemakers are using alternatives. Oak chips are the biggest example. There is also logic at use here – in a barrel, the entire surface area of oak is not used, oak chips offer the entire surface area to be used during aging. They just lack the aesthetic charm of an oak barrel.
Fortified wines like Sherry, port, Pedro Ximénez, are also barrel aged. Sherry, Pedro Ximénez, Port wine, is aged by method known as Sistema Solera. It is a fractional blending process where a barrel is filled with fresh wine to replace the evaporated liquid. The final product is a blend of different vintages.
Barrels used in India
We got in touch with some Indian wineries to get an idea of barrels used. Most winemakers have experimented with both American and French but French oak is the preferred choice. Ashok Patil, Winemaker at Charosa Wineries said that they mostly use French oak for their wines except for Tempranillo where 30% American oak is used. “The barrel is already a year old, we used the American because the coconut and vanilla notes works well with the Tempranillo,” he adds. Similarly, at Vallonne they started with 50% French and 50% American in 2009 but they now use 100% French oak. Sanket Gawand informs that despite the cost and the time the wood takes to mature, the complexity is incomparable. Sula Vineyards is currently conducting trials with Hungarian oak, “Because it is mid way between French and American oak and its cost implications it makes sense,” says Ajoy Shaw, Sula’s winemaker. Apart from the trials, Sula uses not just French and American oak but also oak planks and microxygenation. French oak costs approximately Rs 60000-65000 per barrel while American oak barrels cost Rs 40000-45000 per barrel.