"Barrique"... "Barrel-ageing"... "Barrique cellar"... what feelings do these terms evoke?
They create in the listener's mind, warm images of ancient cellars, where centuries-old barrels defy time in guarding their precious contents and all the more so if the listener is a wine enthusiast.
Indeed, one of the most evocative and fundamental phases in the production of many wines is when they are transferred to a barrel, in which they begin their ageing process. And it is precisely the interaction that the wine has with the wood, during the time they are in contact, that will determine its organoleptic characteristics of flavour, structure, aroma and complexity, its 'personality'.
Historically, when did people start using wood in the ageing of wines?
Throughout winemaking history, wood and terracotta have been the very oldest materials used for storing and transporting wines. The first to discover the benefits of wood in wine production seem to have been the Gauls and then the Romans, who began to consider this material not simply as a transport container but as a tool to be used skilfully to develop the organoleptic qualities of the wines that were placed within it.
Today, thanks to the improvement of toasting techniques in the production of barriques, we obtain woods with highly prized characteristics capable of enhancing the ageing of great red wines as well as whites, prompting producers in more and more cases to increase their barriques in order to age not only part of their production but even in its entirety.
What are the different types of barrels and according to what criteria are producers choosing them for ageing their wines?
In general, wooden 'Barrels' can be classified according to their shape and capacity, the wood used in their construction and the treatment they undergo, the so-called toasting.
In terms of shape and size, a wooden 'Cask' can be classified as Barrique, Tonneaux or Botte Grande. Let us examine the characteristics of each type.
Barrique. One of the most widely used in the world is the Bordeaux Barrique from Bordeaux, France, which has a capacity of 225 litres. Equally widely used is the Barrique from the Burgundy region, the so-called Burgundy Barrique, which has a capacity of 228 litres. The latter differs externally from Bordeaux because it is lower and has a more pronounced belly.
Barrique is characterised by having a greater surface area of wine in contact with the wood than other barrels of greater volume. This characteristic leads to a much more pronounced impact of the wood on the sensory properties of the wine, thanks to a greater oxygenation and release of polyphenols that help soften the tannins, stabilise the colours and give a greater contribution to the aromatic compounds.
Tonneaux. These are larger containers, with a greater capacity ranging from 400 to 800 litres, but with a smaller surface area in contact with the wine, which leads to slower oxygenation of the wine and a less noticeable impact on the wine's aromatic and polyphenolic components than barrels. For these reasons, Tonneaux are widely used by producers for those wines for which the aim is to preserve the primary aromas.
Last, we find the Large Barrels, with capacities normally ranging from 1000 to 5000 litres. This type of barrel has a much more limited influence on the development of the wine due to the greater thickness of the staves and a very light toasting of the wood. When are Large Barrels used? It is usually used where the producer wishes the wine to age very gently while preserving the typical character of the vine and its territorial identity.
Then, as mentioned above, the type of wood used in the construction of the barrel is also important when it comes to assessing wine-wood interaction. French Oak and American Oak are the two most commonly used species. In the case of French wood, this is the most prestigious and is characterised by providing a higher quantity of tannins that contribute elegance to the wine. American oak, on the other hand, has a greater influence on the aromatic composition of the wine, helping it to develop sweeter notes.
The last aspect to be highlighted deals with the so-called Barrel Toasting, i.e., the time the barrel spends on the fire, which not only fixes the curvature of the staves but also modifies the phenolic character of the wood. For example, as a rule, Barriques compared to Tonneaux or Large Barrels have a more pronounced toasting which greatly affects the aroma of the wine and the degree to which they release more or less sweet tannins. Just as a strong roast will produce a much more pronounced transfer of tertiary aromas (vanilla, spices, roasted notes and roasting aromas) than a light roast.
We have tried to explain in a simple way what lies behind the use of a barrel. As you can see, the choice of using a certain type of barrel, made from a certain type of wood, with a certain degree of toasting is not random. Each good oenologist will make his or her own choices according to the characteristics of the wine he or she wants to age, the type of structure he or she wants it to develop (e.g., a high alcohol content, or a good acidity or a certain polyphenolic content), and its capacity for ageing.
Good 'wood' to all!