The Barrels are Coming! The Barrels are Coming!


When I went to do a tasting with a client the other day, I noticed that the barrel cellar was about half empty. I jokingly asked the winemaker if they’d decided to go with oak chips – wink, wink. “Well, no – it’s July.” Yup – July. Out with the old and in with the new. Got to get the new barrels unwrapped, inspected and in place before harvest starts, probably late August this year. 

That is, for those wineries who can afford new barrels and are looking for oak flavor in the wine. New French oak barrels are about $1,000.00 a pop; it’s less than half that for new American barrels. 

When it comes to flavor extraction you can think of barrels as being like tea bags. They give up their flavor with use. Which can actually be a good thing! There are only a few styes of wine that won’t be completely overwhelmed by the powerful flavor imparted by all new barrels. Think big (and expensive) reds.

That’s why the cellar was only about half empty. This particular client doesn’t replace all of the barrels every year.  The winemaker is looking for the right balance of fruit and oak flavors for each of the wines she barrel ages. She makes a rosé that never goes into barrels at all.

The used barrel offers the advantage of allowing the wine to evolve in the barrel (the breathability of oak transforms the wine in various ways: from grapey to more wine-like; improved integration of flavors; softening and mellowing.) All of that is achieved without picking up too much oak flavor along the way. Nifty!

So, blending becomes terribly important, stylistically. A top-tier Napa Cab may, in fact, benefit from aging in all new barrels. Keep that in mind when you get out your check book. The second tier may be 60% new oak with the balance of the wine aging in barrels that have been used once and twice before. Then, the oaky batches are blended with less oaky batches to taste.

Many Chardonnays are blends of Chardonnay wine that spent some time in new barrels, used barrels and Chardonnay wine that never touched oak at all. The oak-aged components are richer, oakier and more concentrated (due to evaporation) than the portion that stayed in stainless steel and brings freshness, fruitiness and, hopefully, some liveliness to the blend. 

What happened to all the barrels that were moved out of the way? Some of them were simply moved to another warehouse for further aging. Others were cleaned and put up for sale. It’s quite common for high-end wineries to replace the barrels when they’re about five years old.   

This little discourse made me realize that there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to barrels: oak alternatives, such as oak chips; French vs. American oak; how different styles of barrel production influence the flavor the barrel imparts; aging alternatives such as micro-oxygenation… Do you want more on this? 

What’s your taste preference? Do you like a good hit of oak on your wine or do your prefer purity of fruit? Or something in between?

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