One of the most widely used methods in the aging of quality wines is aging in wooden barrels.
In this article, we will see the main types of tanks and woods used, the process of toasting the wood and the influence of all these factors on the taste, aroma and structure of the wine.
The influence of wood
Wood is as important in the final result of the wine as is the vineyard, the terroir, the grape variety or the blends chosen.
The wood used in wine aging can contribute notes of vanilla, spices, caramel, toast, coffee and nuts, which enriches the aromatic profile and complexity of the wine. In addition, the tannins released by the wood contribute to the wine’s structure and greater volume in the mouth.
The porous nature of wood allows for micro-oxygenation during aging, gradually oxygenating the wine and softening its astringency as it ages.
The quality of the wood also plays a decisive role, as does the age, size and reuse of the barrel, among other factors.
The function of wood is to complement and highlight the aromas and flavors of the grapes, without masking them. The winemaker tries to achieve a balance between the aromas coming from the wood and the character of the grape variety used.
Types of wooden vessels
Wooden vessels used for aging can come in different shapes and sizes. The most common ones are casks and barrels.
Casks are the largest containers, typically with a capacity ranging from 500 to 2000 liters. Aging in these casks allows for a slower and gentler micro-oxygenation compared to barrels.
The most commonly used barrels range from 225 to 300 liters. The size of the barrel depends on each specific classic winemaking region. For example, in Bordeaux, barrels are usually 225 liters, while in Burgundy, they are often 300 liters. This difference is due to the body of the wines. Bordeaux wines are generally more full-bodied than Burgundy wines, which is why they use smaller barrels. If the barrel is smaller than 200 liters, the increased surface area of wine in contact with the wood can result in an exaggerated taste influence.
There are also other types of smaller wooden vessels, such as vats, tanks, and butts.
Preferred types of wood
Barrels are made from different types of wood, especially French oak and American oak. Oak is very resistant to biological agents such as insects and fungi, among other ideal characteristics for aging.
French oak is the most valued wood for barrels and casks. The pore of French oak is much finer than that of American oak, so it transmits its qualities in a slower and more balanced way. The most characteristic aromas it transmits to the wine are honey, vanilla, tobacco and spices, among others.
American oak, in turn, generates more resistant and impermeable tanks than those made from French oak. It also yields less tannins, produces smoother wines and contributes notes of coconut, cocoa, coffee and vanilla.
The toasting of wood is a process that takes place in barrels and casks during their molding and manufacture. Its interior is burned with fire in varying degrees of intensity, each of which influences the various aromas and flavors, and the structure of the wine.
A light toast results in a lighter, more delicate flavor and aroma, with notes of fresh fruit, vanilla and subtle spices. A medium toast produces a fuller-bodied wine with intermediate flavor and aroma complexity, with more pronounced notes of vanilla, toast and spice. Intense toasting, with higher tannin content, results in a stronger flavor and aroma, with notes of coffee, chocolate and smoke.
As we pointed out, aging wine in wood is a process that involves different aspects, from the types of barrel used, the wood selected and the toasting applied, each with its particular effect on the wine.
Aging in wood barrels is a traditional art, which requires experience and skill on the part of producers who seek to give complexity, character and quality to their wines.