A barrel of fun — why winemakers use oak barrels

The wooden barrel, one of the most enduring of all wine vessels, was used originally for storage and transportation some 2000 years ago. Its value today, though, lies in its ability to clarify, stabilise and add complex aromas and flavours to wine and set the scene for further flavour development in bottle.

Until about the third century AD the two-handled stone amphora carried Etruscan, Greek and Roman wine across the world’s extensive trade routes. But at around about that time the flow of wine from Rome to her northern colonies reversed to be replaced by wooden barrels of Gaulish wine heading south.

These Celtic barrels, according to Hugh Johnson in ‘The Story of Wine’ (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1989) differ little from the ones we use today.

The Romans replaced iron hoops with wooden bands. But iron made a comeback in the seventeenth century. And today’s barrels, while shorter and fatter than those used by the Gauls and Romans, remain pretty much unchanged.

The wooden barrel, while lighter and easier to handle than the amphora, proved not as completely airtight, making it unsuited for long-term storage of table wine. However, its use for bulk transport lasted until after world war two.

An explosion in table wine consumption from the 1970s brought with it a growing demand for oak barrels for maturation (and sometimes fermentation) of high-quality table wines.

Australia’s icon, Penfolds Grange was perhaps the first to be matured in all-new oak, beginning with Max Schubert’s first, experimental Grange in 1951.

Max made two almost identical wines that year: the experimental Grange, partly fermented and all matured in new American oak hogsheads, and a control batch matured in a well-seasoned 4550 litre cask.

Max later wrote of the experimental wine: “… The raw wood was not so apparent but the fruit characteristics had become pronounced and defined… it was almost as if the new wood had acted as a catalyst to release previously unsuspected flavours and aromas…”

The great reds of Bordeaux had inspired Max. And French originals inspired another generation to emulate the magic of white and red Burgundy (chardonnay and pinot noir) and Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon and related varieties). Again, oak played a crucial if challenging role.

Even the most casual wine drinker absorbed some awareness of the role oak plays in wine making — thanks largely to the explosion of chardonnay consumption and the often overt oak flavours found in our favourite tipples.

During years of rapid growth, our wine makers become incredibly good at making chardonnay of the oak-fermented-and-matured variety — even if they did over-oak it at times.

But oaked chardonnays remain in the majority today because, as Max Schubert found in making the original Grange, oak properly used acts “as a catalyst to release previously unsuspected flavours and aromas”.

With chardonnay, as with red wine, it is the oxidative environment as well as the type of oak, how it is seasoned, how it is toasted, how the wine is made, when it goes into the barrel, how long it stays there and what the ambient temperature is that influence the finished wine.

Our wine makers didn’t learn how to cope with all those variables in one vintage.

The cumulative knowledge of the last thirty years, shared amongst wine makers, means we drink ever better oak-matured reds and whites. But the quest to get it right goes on – every vintage.

Wine Reviews

Peter Lehmann Barossa Semillon 2005 $11-$14
In a former life Barossa semillon enjoyed great popularity, as Basedows White Burgundy. Over time, this fairly heavy, oak matured white declined and disappeared. R.I.P Barossa semillon. Then the Peter Lehmann gang (including Peter Lehmann, Andrew Wigan and Doug Lehmann, former Basedow winemaker) threw out the oak to make a fresh, zesty, citrusy style that’s now the company’s biggest selling white and a model for other Barossa makers. Lehmann’s yummy unwooded 2005 won silver in last year’s Barossa Show and its cellar mates, the very fine, slow maturing 2001 and 2002 Reserve Semillons, won gold medals.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2005 $27
This is another barrel-matured wine that grows in interest with each glass. It’s the product of the much-changed De Bortoli approach to viticultural and winemaking reported here last year. Hand picked, hand sorted whole berries underwent indigenous yeast fermentation in open tanks with cap plunging only towards the end of the ferment. After twenty-one days in contact with the skins, the wine was settled then gravity filled to oak casks for maturation then bottled without filtration. This low-intervention regime produced a complex, fine, intensely flavoured, deeply textured pinot to savour any time over the next ten years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007