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Why do winemakers choose different types of barrels to age their wines in?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

A stack of wine barrels

Ask any winemaker about their oak regimen, and you're likely to get a treatise on the various merits and challenges when it comes to something as seemingly simple as a wooden barrel. But oak is one of the few tools a winemaker has to shape a wine’s style, so it's no surprise that when it comes to barrels, winemakers have a lot to say.

Why Age Wine in Barrels?

Aging wine in barrels serves three main purposes.

  • Stabilizing Color. Barrels help with color fixation for red wines. The color molecules in red wines aren’t stable and can fade over time. The micro-oxygenation that happens between the wine and the barrel staves helps ‘fix’, or stabilize, the color compounds in a red wine.

  • Taming Tannins. Barrels will allow for gentle oxygenation that can mellow out harsh tannins in a big red wine.

  • Flavoring. Oak barrels can impart different flavor compounds to the wine, adding baking spice, vanilla, mocha, toast, caramel, and a range of other nuanced flavors that will shape the final wine in your glass.

Different Types of Wine Barrels

Given that oak can play different roles in the winemaking process, it should come as no surprise that there are a range of barrel styles a winemaker can choose. Here are a few of the more popular options:

a neutral oak wine barrel

Neutral Oak

Neutral oak barrels have already been used for wine making in previous vintages. After about 3 years, oak barrels are ‘neutral’. Neutral barrels can help with color fixation and micro-oxygenation that will mellow tannins, but won't impart any flavoring to the wine. Winemakers choose neutral oak when they don't want bold barrel flavorings to overpower a delicate wine.

a French oak wine barrel

French Oak

French oak wine barrels are the traditional choice for winemakers. The difference between French wine barrels and American has to do with tree’s physiology. French oak has a tighter grain than American oak, and so can take longer to impart flavor to the wine. Baking spice, clove, mocha, toast - all can come from French oak.

an American oak wine barrel

American Oak

American oak has a larger grain size than French oak, and imparts flavor more quickly than French oak. American oak gives distinct flavors of vanilla, dill, and coconut. Winemakers may choose American oak for bold wines that can benefit from a stronger flavor profile, or wines that will go to market more quickly.

a Bourbon barrel

Bourbon Barrels

Bourbon barrels are slightly taller and more slender than traditional American and French Oak wine barrels. This increases the total surface area in contact with the wine, ostensibly adding a richer more intense mouthfeel and oak profile to the wine. Bourbon barrels are heavily toasted. Wine aged in bourbon barrels will show vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, and sweet spice.

a stainless steel wine barrel

Steel Barrels

Steel barrels are considered inert, or neutral, in their impact on wine. Winemakers may opt to age aromatic whites in stainless steel to retain the wine’s aroma and flavor profile. Typical wines aged in steel barrels may include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Stainless steel will suit red wines that forefront fresh red and black fruit, like a juicy Beaujolais.

Is one type of oak better than others?

Winemakers will often use a combination of different kinds of wine barrels and aging regimens to shape their wines. Before bottling the wine, they’ll conduct blending trials to figure out the best combination. By leveraging a mix of French, American, stainless steel, or even neutral barrels, they can increase the wine’s complexity and flavor depth.

It's tempting to believe that one style of barrel or oak aging regimen will produce the finest wine, but the best wines are likely to be a combination that can enhance the vintage, bringing depth and character to your glass.

To explore some fine wines, be sure to check out our wine store, or sign up for one of our six wine clubs! Check the tasting notes for information about the barrels used to make each bottle and who knows, you may just find that you have a favorite!

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.