Barrique Cellar at Elena Watch / Photo courtesy Elena Watch
A cellar filled with rows of barrels is an iconic image, popular on winery websites and travelers’ Instagram feeds. The worlds inside these wooden vessels are hardly homogenous, though. Each barrel has a life of its own, chosen to develop and contribute certain qualities to the final wine.
One key factor is the age of the wood. Winemakers often refer to new oak, old oak or neutral oak. What are the differences?
How Oak Impacts Wine
The origins of wood barrels are clay amphora and other “various ancient wine storage and transport containers,” says André Serret, chief executive officer of Vignobles Dom Brial, a cooperative winery in France’s Roussillon region.
But barrels have evolved into more than simple storage vessels. When wine maintains contact with wood during the fermentation and aging process, it undergoes profound modifications thanks to extractable organic compounds, Serret says.
That’s technical biochemistry, but it translates to our most primitive experiences with wine: smell and taste.
“New oak brings an aromatic and gustatory complexity,” says Ludovic Tremeux, barrel craftsman and proprietor of Tonnellerie Tremeaux in Beaune, France, “while old oak, depending on its age, tends to become more neutral year after year.”
New barrels, fresh from the cooperage, have been “toasted,” or exposed to a flame for a certain time and temperature depending on the style of the barrel or cooperage.
“The toasting of the inside of the barrel causes compounds in the wood to degrade into a volatile form that can influence the wine,” says Matt Shown, winemaker and vineyard manager at Brigadoon Wine Co. in Junction City, Oregon. As the level of toasting changes, so too do the volatile compounds and thus the influence.”
New Oak Versus Old Oak
The impact of the toasting process declines as barrels age with use, and they edge toward a neutral state.
“Neutral barrels can still play a big part in a wine,” says Shown. “I like to think of the barrel as a vessel that ‘breathes’ as it meters slow amounts of oxygen into the wine, which has the effect of softening tannins and improving weight or texture.”
Some winemakers use a mix of new and old oak throughout the cellar, even in the making of a single cuvée. Tremeaux says that new oak influences red wines differently than white wines. “New oak will open the aromatics of the white wines, while it will sublimate the tannic structure on red wines,” he says.
“However, most of the time it is still a mix of new oak and older oak, in order to not have the oak flavor cover too much of the delicate primary aromas of the variety,” she says.
The Lifespan of Wine Barrel Oak
The typical winemaking lifespan of a properly maintained barrel is around five years, Tremeux says. Elena Walch sells its barrels to distilleries after four or five years. “After five years, the barrel is no longer of any real interest to the wine, and above all serves only as a container,” Serret says.
But this timeframe can vary depending on the appellation, the type of wine and whether the winemaker is using the barrel for profile influence, oxygenation or storage. Brigadoon Wine Co. has kept neutral barrels for white wine for 20-plus years, and Shown says he’s aware of other wineries that retain barrels even longer.
Shown says that his use of new oak feels like a “moving target” because he can only purchase a limited number of barrels each year. New barrels can be expensive, worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Much like the barrels themselves, a winemaker’s approach to new and old oak is constantly evolving. “Our barrel program is different from where it was five years ago, and I’m comfortable if it continues to evolve and change over time,” Shown says.