When you come into Brian Carter Cellars Winery, you are greeted by hundreds of oak wine barrels stacked to the ceiling. What is the big deal with barrels and wine? Do you need barrels to make good wine? They cost a lot of money, take up a lot of room, and they require a lot of labor to fill, top and rack. In addition, wine is lost through evaporation during aging.
Many wines, I hesitate to say a majority of wines, are probably made without using barrels. Stainless steel tanks can save a winemaker a lot of time and money. When you buy a bottle of wine for under $10.00 or $12.00 a bottle, it is unlikely that the wine was aged in oak barrels. The cost of making wine using oak barrels is too high to be able to sell a bottle of wine at that price point, at least in the United States. Winemakers can get lots of oak character in their wine without the use of oak barrels through the use of oak adjuvants such as oak chips. So why bother?
First a little background on oak barrels and wine. Wine predates the use of barrels; indeed, clay amphorae were the containers of choice for storing and transporting wine until around 300 BC when the Romans discovered the Gauls using barrels for beer. You can imagine the dangers of a large amphora of wine being hauled on a cart. Barrels became the favorite container for wine within a couple of centuries. It soon became apparent that barrels added some qualities to wine by imparting oak flavoring and tannins. Both elements helped wine become more age stable since spoilage of wine was a significant issue before the use of sulfur dioxide. Ultimately winemakers also found that oak barrels, because of their porous nature helped advance the aging of wine. We now know that small amounts of oxygen permeate through the barrel and allow the wine to soften and become more complex over time.
While all types of wood have been and continue to be used including cherry, walnut, chestnut, acacia, and redwood, oak remains the material of choice over the millennia as the choice material for making wine barrels. Few kinds of wood are as durable, resist leaking, and have the desired flavor characteristics as oak. There was a time when the highest demand for oak was to build ships rather than barrels. I have read that most of the oak forests in France were planted by Napoleon, who wanted to assure a long-term supply for his navy. Let us be thankful for the advent of steel hulls for making these forests available for barrels.
French oak barrels are the most sought after by most winemakers in France, and in this country where two oak species dominate: Quercus rober and Quercus sessiliflora. These two species are also used for barrels in Eastern Europe. American oak barrels are also widely available. French oak barrels are the most expensive and cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $1,400 apiece, while European oak is typically closer to $800 and American oak is closer to $500. American oak prices have been on the rise recently because of the growth in the bourbon whiskey industry, which requires the exclusive use of American oak. One reason that American oak barrels are less expensive is that they are less labor intensive to make. French oak has to be hand split, or it will leak, whereas American oak staves can be machined because of their dense wood structure. French oak can be further categorized by the individual forests of origin such as the Vosges and Never. Each forest has its subtle differences in quality. Many winemakers are steering away from buying oak by forest and are instead focusing on the tightness of the oak grain.
Winemakers have many qualities of oak they like to specify including size, toast, length of time for the aging of the staves, and the stave thickness. A cooper or Tonnellerie is a person or company that makes barrels. Oak barrels are almost always toasted (although the heads may not be) and this adds almost an unlimited number of variables that often define a cooper’s style. Different styles can include the type of fire (propane vs. wood), time, temperature and moisture of the wood. Every winemaker tends to have his favorite coopers. The typical barrel is about 59 gallons or 223 liters. While this is the most popular size, barrels can be of almost any size imaginable. Another popular size is the 500L or so-called puncheon. Why the 223-liter barrel is popular is a bit of a mystery, but my theory is that it is the largest size that a (small) Frenchman could easily move around. The smaller the barrel, the greater the surface area to volume, and the more oxygen is transferred into the wine. Of course, an important decision for a winemaker who would like to see his wine either age quickly or more slowly.
So, back to the question, why do we still bother with this ancient system for storing wine? The best wines, certainly the best reds, are made using oak barrels. Consumers have become accustomed to the vanilla, coffee, caramel and smoke characters that oak imparts on wine. The slow oxidation makes the wine less angular and more complex. That is why here at Brian Carter Cellars all of our red wines are stored in 100% oak barrels.
Brian Carter, Winemaker