The barrel is the vessel that has been used to transport wine and age it in wineries for more than two thousand years. Barrels can be made from many types of wood, such as acacia, cherry, pine or chestnut although expert winemakers agree that oak is the best for the ageing of wine.
When wine was initially commercialised by the Greeks and Romans around 4000 years ago, it was transported in pitchers and amphoras. Surprisingly it was not them who invented the barrel, however the Celts, although the term was not coined until 5th Century. It was though the Romans who popularised the use of the barrel as they realised its advantages with regards to easy handling, resistance, permeability and size.
With the fall of the Roman Empire viticulture began to decline therefore in the following years the consumption and elaboration of wine was mainly attributed to religious worhip and the monks. In the beginning most used woods such as pine, cherry, beech, asj, chesnut, acacia and fir however over time oak barrels became common as the wood was widely available in Europe and it showed to be resistant. It was also discovered at this time that oak modifies favourably the taste and olfactory characteristics of the wine.
The consolidation of oak
In the sixteenth century, maritime trade to the newly discovered American continent consolidated the use of oak containers. The size of the barrels used was changed at this time from the 250 litres as used for land transport to 500 litres, still used today in some cases for the production of wines from Jerez, Madeira and Porto. Nowadays the most common size of barrel is 220 litres, although in some regions, as is Rioja, they use 225 litres (called ‘bordelesa’ as this is the size used in Bordeaux). In addition some areas such as Burgundy use 300litre barrels.
From transportation to ageing
Wines that were not sold in the European colonies were returned to origin. As a result it was discovered that after spending time in barrel during the journey the character of the wine changed due to the influence of the oak. Due to this discovery and the invention of the glass bottle the role of the oak barrels changed. They were no longer used for transport however were used to age the wines and actively participate in the evolution and development of their organoleptic potential.
Type of wood
There are several elements that make the choice of wood one of the most complicated and important decisions when it comes to producing a wine of supreme quality: Origin, age, drying of the oak, Joining of staves, type of toast, washing processes, plugging, filling, conditions of the winery, etc.
American or French oak?
Nowadays, with oak considered to be one of the best (if not the best) for wine ageing, the question is: What type of oak should be used for each wine? There are many varieties of oak to choose from such as Russian, Spanish or Hungarian. However the stand-out varieties of oak are French and American.
In general French oak is more porous, releases more tannins, phenols and solids into the wine and is known for giving wine more sublte and pungent spicy notes like clove and black pepper. Wines aged in French oak are often found to have balsamic notes and silkier texture. French oak tends to be more elegant and delicate and therefore better for long ageing.
American oak barrels tend to be more potent in their flavour, releasing compounds like lactones and vanillin at a much higher rate than French oak. These are responsable for some of the ‘oaky’ flavours such as vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and patisserie.
The role of oak in the Beronia style is very important and much has been invested in how the wines, once in barrel, react to different levels of toasting and types of wood. The type of oak used does not only affect flavours and tannin profile of the resulting wine, but also colour and texture.
Since the 1970s Beronia have been investigating the use of oak in the ageing of wine. Winemaker Matias Calleja was looking to get the best from the different types of oak while always maintaining the fruit character which he sees as the essence of the wine. Experiments were carried out ageing wines in different oaks and then blending and then compared to wines aged in mixed barrels. Matias found that the use of mixed barrels allowed for the different characters taken on by the wine from each type of wood to be much more balanced and harmonised than when aged in separate barrels. Also this way it is easier to control the fruit-oak balance. Many tests were carried out with different ‘blends’ of oak and it was decided that the 70% American and 30% French was the best with the staves being made from American oak and the tops from French.
Depending on the character that Matias is looking for every wine he uses 100% French, 100% American or mixed barrels.