By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
“Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” -Joyce Kilmer
I doubt Joyce Kilmer was thinking of wine barrels when he wrote his eponymous poem Trees. But even in the wine world, there is nothing lovelier or more overlooked than a tree. And making the right tree into wine barrels has more to do with the quality of the wine than you might first suspect. A little background may be in order: Barrels have been used to store and transport wine since the 1600’s. Winemakers now have other choices at their disposal, but over the convening two millennia, we’ve acquired a taste for the oak and the other flavor components from the wood that get infused into the juice during fermentation. Generally speaking, American oak imparts stronger flavors of vanilla and coconut, whereas European oak (most frequently French) offers textural subtlety with spicy notes. Both of these come at a price. With American barrels costing $600 and their French counterpart a whopping $1,200, you can safely estimate that 2 to 4 dollars paid for that wine bottle went towards the oak barrel. Another staggering fact is that an oak tree takes nearly 100 years to grow to maturity but only produces wood for TWO barrels, and the oak can only be considered ‘new’ oak for three years. After that it is deemed “neutral’ since most of the seductive spice rack nuances loved by wine connoisseurs have been depleted. Thankfully, the lifespan of the barrel doesn’t end with wine. Some enterprising wineries sell their used barrels to scotch producers, separate them into individual staves, or even ground them into usable oak sawdust. Technology has also come to the rescue in the form of additives that mimic the taste of oak and there are also stainless steel and concrete options. But whatever the technology, there is no doubt about it, only God can create a tree.
Ten Facts About Wine Barrels
- The barrel shape is for structural support and to facilitate easy turning.
- A typical wine barrel holds 60 gallons (300 bottles/1,500 glasses)
- There are an estimated 5.2 billion white oak trees in the U.S. covering approximately 235,000square miles.
- Anyone with the surname Hooper or Cooper probably has ancestors who worked the ancient craft of “Cooperage”.
- There are no knots in the staves of an oak wine barrel.
- A barrel that starts with white wine can only be used for white wine, the same is true for red wine.
- Barrels are toasted on the inside to give more layers of flavor. The toast levels are light, medium, medium-plus or heavy.
- The 2 to 5% volume lost to evaporation is called “Angel’s Share”.
- A Rioja producer is experimenting with Chestnut and ash barrels.
- The largest barrel was built in 1751 using 130 oak trees and housed in a German Castle. It stands 7 meters high, 8 1/2 meters wide and holds 58 thousand gallons.