Pinnacle Ridge wine maker Brad Knapp invites our readers to e-mail questions. Brad will select his favorite question and respond in our monthly e-newsletter.
This month’s question: "I always enjoy visiting your winery for the great wine and ambiance. I'd like to learn more about the oak wine barrels you use. What is their function in wine making? Where are they are made? How long are they used?" Sandy G. - Kutztown
Barrel questions are some of the most frequently asked in our winery tasting room.
Why are some wines stored in barrels? For the answer one has to go back in history. The use of oak has been prevalent in wine making for at least two millennia, first coming into widespread use during the Roman Empire. Wine is a liquid and is not as easy to transport as say, lumber or bread. Ancient wine producers wanting to store and ship wine would put the wine in the common container at the time for liquids. The container of the day for liquids was the barrel. Wine stored and shipped in barrels began to take on the taste of the wood. Folks on the receiving end of the wine became accustomed to the flavor of the barrel in their wines and they liked it that way.
Wineries around the world made their wine and stored it in barrels. When their wine was sold, they simply "rolled out the barrel" from the cellar and onto carts or wagons it went to be delivered. White oak is one of the few woods that has the ability to store liquids without the liquid weeping through the wood. This is a function of the cell structure of white oak. The wood staves (sections) of barrels are difficult to bend. Barrel builders found if the staves were heated, they would bend easily, thus facilitating the construction process of the barrel.
At the time, barrel makers did not realize the fire used to heat the staves also caramelized the sugars in the oak and changed the flavors of the wood from a resin flavor to toasty and smoky flavors. The modern barrel maker uses exclusively white oak for barrel making and the barrels are "toasted" to requested level. A wine maker can order medium light, medium, medium heavy or heavily toasted barrels. All affect the flavor the barrel imparts to the wine. With time, wine makers determined some wines tasted better when stored in barrel versus neutral containers (like concrete or stainless steel tanks or old wooden vessels that no longer impart flavor to the wine). Many reds are stored in barrels and typically, the only white that sees oak is Chardonnay.
Wine makers wanting to reproduce the flavors of French wines learned only recently (early 1960's) the importance of the source of white oak. Chalone winery in California is credited with being the first to import French barrels to make American wines. Chalone winemakers found this brought them a step closer to the taste of French wines. French barrels are made from white oak grown in France. The oak is a slightly different species from the one grown in the U.S. consequently imparting different flavors.
Wine makers today order barrels made of oak from a variety of sources. In the U.S. barrels come from Missouri, Minnesota, Kentucky, Oregon and Appalachian Mountain region trees. In France there are several different regions recognized for different flavors (Allier, Troncais, Vosges etc.). Hungarian oak is popular among wine makers and is making a comeback after changes in government policies towards exporting goods.
How long do barrels last? Barrels will last decades when properly cared for, however, they lose the ability to impart flavor to the wine after four or five years. Once the flavor is extracted oak barrels become "neutral." They can still hold wine and allow for very slow oxidation but they will not impart any "oaky" flavor to the wine. Most wineries sell their barrels once they are neutral.
How much do new oak barrels cost? High quality barrels made from American oak cost $350 to $400. Barrels made in France from French oak cost $800 to $1000. Hungarian oak barrels run around $650.