The importance of barrels and 3 things you didn’t know about them

  The time of aging in wood in the wines and the quality of the wood in the barrels determines many things. Both factors play a fundamental role in the aging of a wine. It is likely that on some occasion you have read “Aging in French oak barrels for 15 months” on a tasting […]


The time of aging in wood in the wines and the quality of the wood in the barrels determines many things. Both factors play a fundamental role in the aging of a wine. It is likely that on some occasion you have read “Aging in French oak barrels for 15 months” on a tasting sheet. In some cases, we will find that a wine has been aged in barrels of different origins, but what is the difference between French and American oak? and, why oak wood?

Throughout history have been different types of wood used in the manufacture of barrels. Thus, oak, chestnut, spruce, cherry, beech, ash, etc., have been used in addition to oak.

However, the particular characteristics that occur in the oak, of adequate transfer of tannic components and characteristic aromas with the exact supply of oxygen through its pores, has made oak wood the right material for the manufacture of barrels. Although not all oak is suitable for aging wine.

There are many areas dedicated to the cultivation of oak throughout the world, but the most popular come from France or the United States, which due to its special climatology and the characteristics of its soils allow an optimal development of different species of oaks offering a unique quality of its wood.

The ideal is that the oaks destined to the manufacture of barrels grow in cold climates, so that they have the opportunity to mature slowly. Most of the French oaks destined to the production of barrels comes from one of the five main forests located – mainly – in the center of France: Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosge.

The case of American barrels is different, since there is usually no emphasis on specifying the name of the forest, as is the case with French barrels. This is because American oak barrels are grown in 18 different states, especially in Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin. It is estimated that the 5.2 billion white oaks in the US they cover more than 608,000 square km.

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Sizes and types of barrels

Once we have understood why it is so important that the wood comes from the oak and its geographical origin we will explain what a barrel is. A barrel, tub or barrel is a wooden vessel used for the aging of wine which have very important functions for this aging, although at first it was not invented for this purpose, but to transport liquid or solid products.

The passage of wine in barrels adds new layers to your personality. The important thing is to know that a greater contact of the wine with the surface of the barrel will be the smoked notes / wood that will be obtained in the wine, especially if it is new or second-use barrels.

The most used barrel in many parts of the world is called bordelesa, with a capacity of 225 litres of wine. But there are other types of barrels, like Burgundy. There is also the Sherry of 500 litres, the “tonneau” (tonneaux) used in Italy and France, with a capacity of 900 litres, as well as the “botti grandi” (foudre), which have a capacity between 2,000 and 6,000 litres. What is pursued in this last group is the maturation and stabilization of the wine, not the aromatic contributions that the wood itself can give, since the volume of the container is very broad.

Bordeaux barrels: we find them in capacities of 190 litres (50 kg), 225 litres (50 to 58 kg), 250 litres (52 kg), 300 litres (60 kg), 400 litres (80 kg), 500 litres (95 kg) ) and 650 litres (105 kg).

3 curiosities about oak and barrels

Climate, soil, grapes and … wood! Magic word in wine. Oak – French or American – that interacts in the texture, in the aroma and flavour of the wine after passing through the barrel …

  1. Greeks and Romans kept and transported the wine in amphoras until they conquered Gaul and discovered that Asterix and Obelix used wooden barrels.

Or what is the same: the love story between wine and wood began linked to the way of transporting the first. Traditionally clay amphorae were the way to store and transport wine until, in full expansion of the Roman Empire, the Romans discovered that the Gauls, instead of amphoras, used wooden barrels to store their beer. Less risk of breaking, easier to transport to be able to make them roll, all were advantages. For this reason, the Romans began to store wine in wooden barrels.

  1. Why oak and not pine, for example?

History is long and over the centuries has been tested with other types of wood, including pine. Although all woods breathe and let in a little air, the pore of the oak wood allows a very slow interaction of the wine with the oxygen of the environment, acting as a catalyst in the chemical changes that take place inside the barrel. But the greatest contribution of oak to wine is the aroma and flavor: toasted, drier or fresher fruit, sweet spices such as vanilla … So is the oak itself that is perceived in the tasting, that in some areas of the world they even submerge oak wood chips in the wine to give it the character that wood gives it without having to put it in barrels – this practice is forbidden in Europe.

  1. It is not the same fermented in barrel as aged in barrel

“Fermented in barrel” means that the must was poured directly into the barrel and that, inside it, it became wine. “Aged in barrel”, on the other hand, refers to the wine that has been fermented in other types of vats and later it is moved to barrels so that it ages in the latter. This is what is usually done with red wines, since for its fermentation the grape skins are not eliminated, a very sticky mixture to be in contact with the wood. Finally, and although it seems incredible, a wine fermented in barrels has less oak memories than other just aged.

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