What is it about a wine barrel that evokes a sense of lust for wine lovers? Guests to the winery always want to see one thing, the barrel room. Maybe it’s because the barrels hold our precious libation before it is released into the world; they coddled it and loved it when it was young. Maybe it’s because it gives so much of itself to wine in such a delicate matter. Whatever it is, we love wine barrels.
The wine barrel serves three functions:
- The wood used to make the barrel flavors the wine.
- The barrel allows for clarification of the wine; particles in the wine drop to the bottom of the barrel.
- The barrel serves as a vessel for aging.
A typical wine barrel holds 60 gallons of wine which translates to 25 cases of wine, which is 300 bottles and turns out to be about 1,187 glasses of wine (give or take a glass or two). Due to evaporation, which contributes to the concentration of flavors, the barrels are topped off about every other week. This helps prevent oxidation.
A new French barrel costs about $900 to $1000 and has a life span of about 4 to 6 years. During its prime, it gives wine a toasty vanilla flavor and will have a great effect on the mouth feel and texture of the wine. An American barrel costs $500 to $600 and contributes an intense, spicy flavor and often notes of coconut. Some winemakers in the states have also started using Hungarian oak. At a cost of approximately $600 per barrel, it is expected to contribute many of the same characteristics as the more expensive French barrels.
Something to keep in mind, not all wines are aged in wine barrels. Granted, the majority of red wines are aged in oak, but many white wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. A winemaker uses oak as a chef uses seasonings and spices. Just as a chef can over (or under) season a dish, a winemaker can with oak as well. Oak is meant to be an enhancement to the beauty of the grape and its juice.
Next time you open a bottle of red, or an oaked bottle of white, raise a toast to the ‘seasoning’ of its life, the wine barrel.
Christina Anderson-Heller is the Marketing Director for Lynfred Winery. Lynfred Winery, located in Roselle, with tasting room locations in Wheaton, Wheeling and Naperville, is Illinois’ oldest and largest, continually-operating family winery. All the wines mentioned in this column can be found at Lynfred. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lynfredwinery.