What Is Barrel Ageing?

 

Barrel ageing is the cornerstone of the process called élevage, which is the French term meaning “raising” or “upbringing” used to describe what happens to the wine between fermentation and bottling. The wine’s élevage can last for a few months to many years, during which time the wine’s flavours integrate and mature. The winemakers’ choices during the ageing process, including how long to age the wine and how much to manipulate it, will have a huge impact on the taste of the finished product.

Oak barrels are made from staves, which are long pieces of oak wood that are fitted tightly together with metal hoops. The barrels are toasted over a fire to either a light, medium, or dark toast level. New barrels with a light toast will give lots of vanilla and caramel notes, while a darker toast will give smokey, roasted aromas.

For oak wine barrels, the barrel’s age and size affect the amount of oak flavour that will be transmitted to the wine. Smaller barrels impart more oak flavour because they allow more contact between the wood and the wine. Oak barrels loose their signature flavour compounds with use, so they must be replaced every few vintages.

In addition to adding oak flavours, new oak ageing changes the tannin structure of red wines. Tannins from the wood transfer into the wine, giving it a stronger structure. This contributes to a wine’s ageability, or longevity in the bottle. The wood also helps stabilize the tannins from the grape skins, giving them a silkier texture.

Oak ageing adds these aromas to both red and white wines:

  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Baking spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg
  • Coconut
  • Dill
  • Smoke
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Toffee/burnt sugar

 

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