Bourbon and WhiskeyApril 19, 2018
Wood, Whiskey and Wine: The Oak Barrel Affair, an Unbeatable TechnologyMay 22, 2018
Before we delve into the how and why of winemaking, let us first tell you about the vital components used in the process. Besides grapes, oak is an essential and expensive component required to make various wines. While everyone knows how oak barrels look, only a few people may understand how much time, effort and love goes into producing them. Oak wood is harvested and crafted for barrels across the United States, Europe, and Japan. Although a few east European countries grow large amounts of Oak, France is known as the largest supplier of European Oak wood. America, being the largest supplier of barrels, produces nearly 40 percent of wine barrels worldwide.
The Know-How of Making a Barrel
Typically, an oak tree can be harvested if it is more than a hundred years old. The barrel makers, usually called coopers, split the wood and is then exposed to sun and rain for around 2 years. During this time, most of the tannins are pulled out from the wood, leaving it with soft tannin, good enough for winemaking. Turning wood into barrels is not a simple task. Coopers heat the staves or wood pieces over fire. This makes the wood bendable, and thus easy to be shaped. Chains and winches are used to seal rings and staves together. These incredibly heavy barrels are held over intense fire, which is a very tiring process. In some situations, the process of heating the barrel not only makes it pliable to form a shape, but also caramelizes sugar that gives the wood a desirable vanilla flavor.
Generally, a good cooper makes one barrel in a day. High-end wineries use good quality barrels for almost five years. The barrels are used for maturation of the winery’s best libations for nearly two years and then they are used for the production of lower wines for the next 3 years. Now, after using barrels for 5 years, these high-end wineries sell them to home winemakers or smaller wineries for more use. Eventually, once they have ran their lifecycle for delicious libations, they can be halved and turned into home furniture or décor.
The Know-How of Toasting
The process of toasting a barrel starts with burning a fire inside the oak staves, typically within the center with the intent of charring them. This releases desirable flavor in the wood, which is later extracted by the liquid placed in the barrel. Toast is usually measured as light or heavy and with each level, the flavor differs. The oak wood produced in different climates and areas responds differently to toasting. To find out which toast level will be more beneficial for a specific barrel, the cooper utilizes his skills, experience and intuition. The way wine extracts favorable compounds mostly depends on the size of the barrel. The larger the size, the higher the ratio of wine to extract flavor and subtler is the oak’s perception. Although 300-litre hogshead is also popular nowadays, 225-litre Bordeaux barrique is most commonly used. 1000-litres large wooden vats are called foudres and can be used for a long time.
When the barrel is filled with wine for the first time, it is known as ‘first fill’ and ‘second fill’ the second time it is filled and so on. Here, the significance is the limited extract available. Nearly 50% flavor is absorbed in the first fill and 25% in the second fill and further decreases after each fill.
The Influence of Oak on Wine
Oak wood is preferred for cooperage due to its various qualities. It is strong, resilient and bendable under the right circumstances. Full-grown trees provide the straight grained staves. Also, with minimum shrinkage, it makes a tight container for storing liquids and does not impart objectionable flavors. Tyloses and medulary rays are the amazing features that make oak wood desirable for crafting wine barrels. Besides providing flavors, Oak barrels are well suited for slow maturation and aeration of young wines. Racking of wine from one oak barrel to a different barrel, while leaving sediments, helps to oxygenate the wine. Oxygen is essential for the development and integration of tannin as it enables tannins to polymerize while enhancing the wine. Also, oxygen interacts with flavor compounds to produce desired aromas.
Aging and maturation consist of a series of reactions and changes that take place in the wine barrel, which leads to wine enhancement. Wine aging cannot be viewed as one procedure or single event. It is rather a series of changes. Also, the terms, aging and maturation depict different changes. The term maturation is used when the changes occur during the bulk storage whereas aging is used for the reactions taking place when wine is stored in a bottle. So, the major difference is that wine is exposed to air when stored in bulk, when bottled it is under anaerobic conditions.
Both maturation and aging processes involve the type of container used for storage, conditions such as humidity and temperature and time of storage. Cellar temperature is another crucial factor that influences aging changes. A reaction occurring at a given time and temperature, typically will have a reaction in a shorter time if we increase the temperature. Therefore, different types of material, such as concrete, stainless steel, wood and plastic are used for making containers. The material and size of container profoundly affects wine development during aging.
Oak Barrels have been an integral part of winemaking for centuries. Wine barrels are also visually appealing and can provide awesome home décor from an aesthetic perspective as well. These are the primary attractions in vineyards and wineries. Many wine enthusiasts even believe that a vineyard or winery is incomplete without an oak barrel. For all the passionate winemakers or wine lovers out there, a wine barrel is not merely a tool. Rather, it is an expression of approach towards making wine.
Rocky Mountain Barrel Company inspires you to welcome the traditional winemaking procedure by providing used wine barrels. Call us or come visit us!