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Barrels of Bliss: Exploring the World of Wine Barrel Varieties
Aurora Cellars Wine Barrels

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When it comes to winemaking, the choice of barrel can make a significant impact on the flavor, aroma, and overall character of the wine. Winemakers have long recognized the influence of barrels, and different types of wood and barrel styles offer unique attributes that contribute to the complexity and richness of the final product. From the classic French oak to the bold American oak and the distinct flavors imparted by alternative materials, the world of winemaking barrels is as diverse as the wines themselves. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of winemaking barrels, explore the various types and their role in shaping the wines we know and love.

Wine and oak have gone hand in hand since the invention of barrels. While there are other types of barrels – acacia, chestnut, and other sorts of wood, clay, concrete, and various variations on earthenware amphorae, oak continues to be the favorite across the wine world, according to The World Atlas of Wine 8th Edition.

There are three main types of wine barrels and each one adds something different to the wine:

French Oak

Oak grows everywhere in France.The forests in which it does are the source of several species of European Oak trees, including white oak used for oaking wine. It is common to find French Oak throughout Europe and Sessile Oak is a finer grain species that is more sparse. Wine Folly explains that the forests used for barrel oak are selected for their fine-grained consistent wood.

Barrels made from Alliers, Vosges, and Tronçais are made from a more fine-grained wood. Limousin oak is more loose-grained and is more ideal for Cognac, Armagnac, Sherry, and whiskey production.

Chances are that any winery you visit has a barrel program and chances are, those barrels are made of French Oak – like at Aurora Cellars. This type of oak tends to add flavor compounds in a more subtle way than the other main types of oak. Ideal matches for French Oak are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is because they “soak up” flavor more easily than other varieties – like Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Wines fermented in French oak barrels tend to have more tannins than those fermented in American oak barrels.

Our 2021 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay was fermented in new French oak barrels for about ten months before being bottled. When white wines are fermented in barrels, they tend to have a smoother texture and deeper flavors. If a winemaker is aiming for a creamier texture for their white wine, they will ferment it in a barrel. White wines may be aged in the barrel for as little as three months to take up just a little of the oak flavor. 

It is more common to see red wines being aged in barrels. Our 2020 Pinot Noir spent about 14 months in a variety of oak barrels – 15% new French oak, 30% second use French oak, and 50% third use French oak. Typically, reds will barrel age for 18 months and more before being bottled. 

American Oak

While there are many types of oak trees found in America, the one species that is used for oaking wine is American White Oak. This species grows throughout the Eastern US and can commonly be found in Missouri. American cooperages – people who make barrels – predominantly produce barrels to be used in the Bourbon industry. When it comes to using American oak barrels, there tends to be less demand for it in the wine industry. 

American oak is described as being attractively sweet with flavors of dill, coconut, and vanilla. This type of barrel adds a sort of ruggedness to clean, fruit-forward new world wines. American White Oak grain sizes have looser grains than both French and Eastern European Oak. American oak barrels tend to impart fewer tannins than other types of barrels, according to El Coto De Rioja.

Hungarian/Eastern European Oak

Wine experts say Hungarian and Eastern European Oak is the same type of oak tree as French Oak. More wineries are using Eastern European Oak barrels for oaking wine due to it being remarkably similar to French Oak and costing less.

Several winemakers like to use this type for full-bodied varieties, such as Malbec and Petite Verdot. Those who use these oak barrels believe the wines are strong enough to “hold up” to the richer, nutty flavors the wood imparts on the finished wine. 

Other Woods Used to Age Wine

The above mentioned types of oak aren’t the only types that wine barrels can be made out of. Yes, they have been found to be the best but there are several other different species that have been found to work well for aging wine:

  • Chestnut (Castanea sativa) Offers more oxygen ingress, no oak lactone and increased guaiacol and vanilla
  • Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) Possible increased oxygen ingress and no oak lactone
  • Iberian Oak (Quercus pyrenaica) Offers more oxygen ingress and increased vanilla tones
  • English Oak (Quercus robur) Similar to Quercus petrea

How Does Oak Help Wine?

But how does the oak help the wine and its flavoring? It offers three major contributions to wine:

  • Adds flavor compounds – including aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke and coconut
  • Allows the slow ingress of oxygen – a process which makes wine taste smoother and less astringent
  • Provides a suitable environment for certain metabolic reactions to occur – which makes wines taste creamier.

The world of wine barrels is a fascinating one, filled with rich history, tradition, and innovation. From the classic oak barrels that impart complexity and depth to the wines, to the modern stainless steel and concrete vessels that offer precise control over the aging process, each type of barrel brings its unique character to the final product. Whether it’s the buttery notes of a Chardonnay aged in French oak, the vibrant fruit flavors of a Tempranillo aged in American oak, or the clean, crisp finish of a stainless steel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, the choice of barrel has a significant impact on the flavor profile and overall quality of the wine. 

The next time you’re enjoying your favorite Aurora Cellars wine, whether it be red or our Chardonnay, know each glass was made with craftsmanship, artistry, and patience that comes with choosing the perfect barrel. 

 

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