Barrels are one of the determining factors in wine maturation. We have already explained how wine is affected by the length of time it spends in barrel and bottle, turning it into a Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva but, as you can guess, the fact that the ageing occurs in one barrel or another is also of importance. This is why in today’s post we want you to better understand these elements so you can understand why they are so important. Let’s get started!
A short history: from the amphora to the barrel
Have you ever wondered why wine started to be aged in barrels? Well, it is an exciting story, in which luck (or fate) had a big role to play. Do you want to hear it? Well, keep reading!
As we have already mentioned, more than 2,000 years ago wine was transported in clay amphorae, not the most practical of systems for transporting large quantities as the jars were easily cracked or broken. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans needed a better solution to expand the wine trade and the solution came with the Celts.
The Celtic peoples, who lived in the North and Centre of Europe, worked a lot with wood, a material that was abundant where they lived, and that they used to build their houses, boats and containers. At first, they managed to make watertight vessels by hollowing out trunks, but at a later stage they advanced into constructing the first barrels, cutting the trunks into staves (the name given to the curved planks that make up a barrel) and joining them together with wood or wicker rings. As you may have imagined, as soon as the Romans heard about this advance, they adopted the same system.
Barrels met, therefore, a transport need. But then, in the 18th Century, the French cottoned on to the fact that wine transported in barrels not only reached its destination in an excellent condition, but it actually tasted even better! What happened on route to make the quality of the wine improve?
Although today the answer seems obvious as we are well aware of the process by which the barrel gives colour, aroma and flavour to the wines; at that time they had to experiment to show, firstly, the important role that the barrel plays in terms of wine quality, and afterwards, which type of wood gave the best results.
Types of barrels
Essentially, barrels today continue to be very similar to those first barrels: they are formed by curved staves that are joined together with iron rings, forming a convex cylinder that it closed on each end with circular lids.
When it comes to barrels, size does matter and the material it is made from, that’s to say, the wood, is also of key importance.
The dimensions of a barrel are important as, in general terms, the larger the barrel the less effect the wood will have on the ageing of the wine as there will be less surface area in contact with the wine (which, as we’ve seen, is very important in acquiring tertiary aromas). Currently, the most commonly used barrel in terms of size is the 225-litre Bordeaux barrel, the only one that is authorised for the ageing of wines in the D.O. Ca Rioja
The most highly prized wood: American and French oak
If you think of a barrel it is likely that what first comes to your head is oak. And while it is true that oak is the most widely used wood in making barrels, it is not to say that it is the only one: barrels are also made of cherry wood, pine, acacia, chestnut… albeit in a minority of cases.
But oak continues to be king thanks to both its chemical composition (that is responsible for the aromatic compounds that it transfers to wine) and its physical make-up (good level of water tightness and easy to manage in the cooperage) although, of course, not all oak is the same. American and French oak are the most commonly used, and even they are not the same:
- American oak “Quercus alba” is the most porous and, therefore, allows more oxygen to reach the wine, benefitting wines that are aged for a shorter length of time as they evolve more quickly. This is because “the grain” or the space between the growth rings is larger than in French oak. On the other hand it is oak with less tannin than French oak. This is the type of wood we use in our Crianza.
- French oak, “Quercus robur” on the other hand, is denser, with smaller pores (as its growth rings are very close together) and, therefore, the wine evolves more slowly inside it. Therefore, it is perfect for long-aged wines. This type of oak transfers a larger total amount of tannin to the wine. For our Reserva we use a mixture of both oaks and in the ageing of our Gran Reserva, the barrels are 100% French oak. It is important to consider that not all young wines can age in new French oak barrels… it may be that the oak overwhelms the wine, not leading to the desired effect!
Another aspect to consider in relation to wood its the level of toast, this can be light, medium or high and the whole of the inside of the barrel may be toasted or just the staves, leaving fresh oak on the ends. As we’re sure you can guess, the level of toast has a direct impact on the intensity of the wine’s aromas and the commercial profile that is sought.
Now you know how the love affair between wine and wood came about. Whether it was a happy coincidence or a twist of fate, there is no denying that it’s a relationship that is destined to last forever. And cheers to that!