Hi, I’m Penny Lively, owner of Joyeux Winery, along the central California coast. As a winery owner, I’m often asked why we still use wooden barrels to age and store wine. Visitors to Joyeux winery see that we use both oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. Steel tanks seem easier to use, and they are. A lot of fresh, fruity white wines do better in stainless steel. The important difference is the white wines aren’t for aging. Usually the sooner you drink them, the better they are. The steel keeps the fruity flavors fresh and crisp. Red wines, though, are a different matter. Most red wines improve with age, especially in oak barrels, but it took a while to figure this out.
Letting crushed grapes sit around in wooden pails until it turned into something, well, a little tastier, has been going on for more than 5,000 years. The first wine drinkers weren’t overly picky, and it didn’t take a lot of flavor to keep the average wine drinker happy. Let’s be honest; flavor wasn’t the primary concern.
This went on for quite some time. Until the Iron Age, to be exact, when the pails were enclosed and barrels came into use. When this happened everything changed for winemakers. At first it was simply convenient to store the wine in barrels. It certainly made shipping easier. They didn’t break like the clay containers used before, and the barrels could be easily rolled. Barrels also allowed wine makers to make more wine at once, leaving it sitting in the barrels until it was needed.
The consumer of this wine soon discovered a greater benefit. It didn’t take long to realize something wonderful was happening. This wine was different. This wine tasted good. Softer. Flavors like vanilla and tea. Caramelized sugar. The wine was vastly improved, and all by happy accident. These added flavors and depth to the wine are why wooden barrels are still used, even in a time when synthetic materials and stainless steel are available and would be easier. Barrel making itself has become an art form. The barrel size or the ways they are made can influence the flavor of the wine. The type of oak, and if it’s sawn or hand-split. Is it heated over a fire or is boiling water used to bend the staves? New Oak for intensity or old oak for elegance?
Another reason wooden barrels work so well is that they allow for oxidation. They are porous. The very gradual oxidation increases the complex flavor and fragrances in the wine. The barrels breathe. In some cases ten to fifteen percent of the wine evaporates while it is in the barrels and before it’s bottled. That’s where the term “Angels Share” comes in. It takes a bit of luck, magic, and yes, a little help from the heavens to make a wonderful wine. If the angels want to have a taste, it’s fine with me. We can use all the help we can get.
About the book: RIPE FOR MURDER: A Cypress Cove Mystery, by Carlene O’Neil, March 1, 2016, $7.99.