Monday, February 27, 2006

To Barrel Your Wine or NOT To Barrel Your Wine

These days a lot of wine makers and winery owners automatically assume their winery will be well-stocked with stacks of hand-crafted oak barrels.

But it's not a winery requirement. It should be a carefully considered decision based on the winery philosophy for making great wine.

The oak barrel route is an expensive one. When a wine maker decides to use barrels then they are taking a fork in the wine making road that involves the budget and the style of the house. It also creates an inventory timing issue. Instead of making and bottling everything within a year, a winery now must hold inventory until the wine has received the desired effect from the barrels. Sometimes this means years after the vintage.

Barrel prices range from around $250 to well over $1,000 per unit (US$) so it's a major investment. After about 4 or 5 years the influence on flavour and aroma is minimal so what you have left is a 225 liter storage tank with some challenging sanitation issues.

Generally speaking, a red wine made in the traditional style of most major red wine-producing areas will spend some time in barrel. But if your objective is to make the best $5.00/glass bar pour merlot then maybe a tank, some micro-oxygenation and a few pillow cases of oak chips is the way to go. You'd be surprised how many of the very popular red brands go this route. Or maybe you wouldn't.

Obviously, if you're making all aromatic whites, your requirement for oak will be minimal if not non-existent. Maybe all you'll need is enough to decorate the tasting room.

Some of the factors involved in choosing oak:
  • American or French or Hungarian or something else or blended?
  • Oak or one of the exotics (chestnut, acacia)?
  • Tight grain?
  • Toasting level?
  • Fire or water bent?
  • Shape? Bordeaux or Burgundy?
  • Thin stave or regular?
  • 2 yr. seasoned or more?
  • Which forest?
  • Which cooper?
  • Who's got the best t-shirts?
  • Used (careful!) or new?

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