Barrels - Why are they used?

Barrels - Why are they used?

Wooden barrels were once the standard goods container. Peter F May asked today's winemakers why they still used this archaic reminder of the past.

Captain Jack Aubrey tossed empty barrels from his ship as targets for his gun crews to practise shooting. Barrels were common enough to be disposable. Barrels held the salted beef and dried beans sailors ate, flour they made bread from and the water they drank. Wooden barrels were the standard packaging of the age used on land as well as sea. Consumers bought goods loose from barrels in stores and so wineries used barrels to ferment and store wines. Wines were exported in barrel and as recently as fifty years ago wine merchants would themselves bottle the produce of even famous Bordeaux chateaux. Ships were rated by how many tuns, or barrels, they could carry and the term tonnage survives to this day

Now barrels have disappeared from daily life. The only place to see barrels in common use is wineries and distilleries. Any tour of a winery will involve the barrel cellar where one’s guide will proudly boast of the number of new oak barrels purchased every year to age wine and explain they can be used for only a few years before being replaced. And they may disclose the individual cost: a French oak barrel costs around $700. Visitors will do -mental arithmetic and wonder at the investment in front of them.

If the look of the cellar hasn’t changed for centuries, the rest of the winery has. Few now ferment in wooden barrels. Gleaming temperature controlled stainless steel tanks are more hygienic and easier to control. The old wooden press has been moved outside the gift shop for visitors to photograph and grapes are now gently squeezed under computer control by air pressure in a nylon bladder. And many wineries have left behind traditional corks for metal screw caps and alternative closures.

So why do wineries still use wooden barrels to age wine? They are expensive and so add a significant amount to the price of a bottle of finished wine. There are two things that barrels do when aging wine. The first is to allow a small amount of oxygen through pores in the wood which helps change the character of the wine as it ages and the second is that contact with wood adds tannins and an oak flavour to the wine.

But you don’t need barrels to do this. You can use modern stainless steel tanks and suspend staves or bags of oak chips in the wine to add tannins and oak tones and pump oxygen into the tank in a process known as micro-oxygenation.

And this is what is done with inexpensive wines.

So why do so many persist with using wooden barrels? The answer winemakers have given me is that traditional barrels make successful wines. They say that they’ll reconsider when wines made without barrels start winning awards and scoring high points.

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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