What Is Barrel Aging in Winemaking?

What Is Barrel Aging in Winemaking?

Archaeologists have found evidence of wine consumption, and artists have depicted it forever. Ancient societies are known to have held their wine in ceramic barrels and pitchers, followed by wooden casks, because these were lighter, easier to transport, and less likely to break.

While these procedures undoubtedly had a practical justification, over time, winemakers came to understand that aging and storage may alter the fragrance, flavor, and texture of the wine. Beer and spirits like cognac, tequila, and whiskey are all produced with the use of barrel aging.

The sweet vanilla and spice notes of oak ageing are distinguishing characteristics of some of the greatest wines in the world, from the acclaimed pinot noirs of Burgundy to the legendary cabernet sauvignons of the Napa Valley. Although wooden barrels are still the most common way to mature wine, makers of lighter wines are now using stainless steel barrels to emphasize the characteristics of fresh fruit.

What Is Barrel Aging in Winemaking?

The cornerstone of the process known as élevage, which is French for "raising" or "upbringing," is barrel ageing. Élevage refers to what happens to the wine between fermentation and bottling. The wine's characteristics combine and evolve throughout the élevage, which can take anywhere from a few months to many years. The decisions made by the winemakers during the aging process, such as how long to age the wine for and how much to manipulate it, will have a significant impact on the final product's flavor. The decision of whether to mature the wine in steel or oak barrels is among the most crucial ones.

How Is the Winemaking Process Affected by an Oak Barrel?

The two primary varieties of oak that can be used to create barrels for use globally are European oak and American white oak. However, European winemakers do not only use European oak barrels, and the opposite is also true. For instance, the richer notes of American oak play a significant role in the wines of Rioja, Spain.

Staves are formed of long lengths of oak wood that are tightly fastened with metal hoops to form oak barrels. Over a fire, the barrels are toasted to a light, medium, or dark toast degree. A light toast on new barrels will produce a lot of notes of vanilla and caramel, whilst a darker toast would provide smoky, roasted aromas.

The amount of oak flavour that will be imparted to the wine depends on the age and size of the oak wine barrel. Due to the increased contact between the wood and the wine in smaller barrels, the oak flavor is enhanced. Every few vintages, oak barrels need to be replaced since they lose their distinctive taste constituents with use.

The tannic structure of red wines is altered by fresh oak ageing, in addition to the addition of oak flavors. Wine gains the wood's tannins, which strengthen its structure. This enhances a wine's capacity to age or keep well in the bottle. Additionally, the wood gives the grape skins' tannins a silkier feel by stabilizing them.

New wood eventually turns "neutral" and stops adding taste or tannin to wine after a few years of use. They can be used to age wine that needs to mellow without acquiring any oak flavor because these neutral barrels still permit gentle oxygenation.

The inventive wine aficionado can transform a used wine barrel into a table top, a bar stool, or a wine barrel planter once it has served its duty in the winery for its entire career. Solid oak barrel staves, along with wooden wine crates, provide excellent fuel for a backyard fire pit.

What Does It Taste Like to Age Wine in New Oak?

Both red and white wines gain these scents from new oak ageing.

1. Vanilla.

2. Toffee

3. Baking spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove

4. Coconut (especially from American oak)

5. Dill (particularly from American oak) (especially from American oak)

Red wine aged in new oak may also have the following notes:

1. Smoke, 

2. Chocolate

3. Coffee

4. Toffee /burnt sugar

How Does the Winemaking Process Change with a Stainless Steel Barrel?

Wine is aged in stainless steel barrels known as "steel barrels." The wine is just held in the steel for a few months until it stabilizes and the flavors meld. The steel does not flavour the wine. Additionally, steel barrels prevent any oxygen from coming into contact with the wine. Wines aged in this way maintain their fresh fruit flavours, which are lost when exposed to oxygen.

For wines that wouldn't benefit from the addition of oak flavours or the mellowing influence that oak has on tannin, winemakers age them in stainless steel. Since white wines don't have to deal with tannins like red wines do, they are more popular. Those white grapes that are aromatic or semi-aromatic are typically fermented in stainless steel, such as:

1. Sauvignon blanc

2. Riesling

3. Gewürztraminer 

4. Pinot Grigio

5. Albarino

6. Grüner Veltliner

7. Chardonnay (a fruit with a variety of uses that is frequently aged in oak)

Low-tannin, flavorful grapes like Shiraz and Syrah are suitable choices for stainless steel fermentation in red wines.

1. Gamay

2. Grenache 

3. Cabernet franc

Red wines matured in stainless steel are uncomplicated and juicy, with no traces of oak masking the grape characteristics.

What Sets Stainless Steel Aged Wines Apart from Oak Barrel Aged Wines?

The absence or presence of oak scents and flavors is the primary distinction between wines aged in stainless steel and those matured in wood. Different aging techniques work better with some grape varieties than others. In order to give neutral grapes (like chardonnay, which doesn't have much aroma) greater complexity, wood is frequently used to age them. For fragrant grapes (like riesling) whose particular scents would be lost under the taste of oak aging, stainless steel ageing is more appropriate.

The cost of wine aged in oak barrels versus stainless steel is another distinction. Because steel barrels can be used over and over again and are considerably simpler to clean than oak barrels, stainless steel aging is significantly less expensive than using wood barrels. Additionally, stainless steel maturing takes less time than oak aging, saving winemakers essential wine cellar space. Due to these features, consumers can expect to pay less for wines produced in stainless steel.

The cost of purchasing new barrels is factored into the higher prices of oak-aged wines because they can only be used to give flavour to the wine two or three times before needing to be replaced. Some winemakers try to emulate the taste of aged oak at a lower cost by adding oak chips to wines that are maturing in stainless steel containers. The texture of a wine is unaffected by wood chips, unlike oak barrels, but they do contribute flavours of vanilla and spices.

In conclusion, you get what you paid for.

Per oak tree, which takes several decades to grow, only around two oak barrels may be produced. Additionally, coopering the wood into barrels requires a high level of ability.

Because of this, a new wine barrel typically costs the winery $600-$1200. This increases the price of raw materials for one bottle of wine by around $2 to $4. This is a fact of life when it comes to producing quality wine.

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