A Wine Barrel, A Little Background As To Why Use Them

Wine barrels, for the aging of wine, is a very, very old tradition. After fermentation the wine is put into oak barrels for the aging process to happen. Using oak for these barrels allows for the wine to take on characteristics from the timber.

The wine is usually fermented in stainless steel tanks and then put into the oak wine barrels to allow it to age. Although some varieties are fermented and aged in the one oak barrel, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two that this may happen to.

The French oak is considered ideal to make the wine barrels as there are French oak forests that were planted in Napoleon's time for the making of timber sailing ships but as timber ships are no longer in demand there is a good supply for the oak barrels as these oak forests have become an ongoing forestry operation.

The timber from five of these forests is used to produce the wood for the making of wine barrels as the wood is tight grained and has the characteristics of oak, like vanilla, spice and butter flavors which is imparted more slowly to the wine than a looser grained wood.

There was a lot involved in selecting the wood to make the wine barrels, oaks from other countries didn't seem as successful as the French but then it was discovered it was not the wood so much as the way it was treated and how the barrels were made.

In America, they made the wine barrels similar to the way they made the whiskey barrels and when they changed to the way the French made wine barrels, the results improved dramatically.

The difference in the making was, the French allowed their oak to air dry for at least 24 months and they split the wood to make the staves. Whereas, the Americans were kiln-drying the wood and sawing it to make the staves.

When wine barrels are made there is one step that happens during the process and that is placing the partly assembled barrel over a small wood fire. This is called 'toasting' or 'charring'. Now it depends on how deep the charring goes as to the type of 'toast' the inside of the barrel gets and this in turn has an effect on the wine aged in it. A winemaker can order a wind barrel in Light, Medium or Heavy Toast and this will be based on the type of grape and the style of wine to be produced in the barrel. There are many more options available to the winemaker when choosing the wine barrels.

There are options like the shape of the barrel, the most common of these being the Bordeaux Barrel and the Burgundy Barrel. There are many sizes and variations of the thickness of the staves and how the wine barrels are finally finished. As these barrels are handcrafted no two will be exactly the same.

Although a wine barrel will last about 100 years, the actual use for the winemaker is five years. Their life can be extended by shaving the inside of the barrel and then inserting a thin skin of staves that have been toasted. Another way to use these barrels past their 'use by date' has been to add the shavings in a bag, to the aging wine. Although the results of these methods have been not been as good as the traditional method of aging wine.

There are some things that shouldn't be tampered with and traditional aging of wine in oak wine barrels is one of them. There have been many uses for the wine barrels that are past their 'use by date' for aging wine, just start looking for them in decorating and gardening.

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