Wherever I am in the world Bordeaux seems to follow me around, usually as bottles. There is usually a familiar wine on the list. Sometimes on the other side of the world I’ll discover something new from very close to home. But it’s not only bottles and the wine they contain that travel from Bordeaux. Barrels do too.
Barrels are an important part of wine making. Used judiciously, they can add complexity, longevity and power. Used less wisely, they can overpower a wine, masking elegance and subtlety. Barrels add aromas and tannins but also help the wine along its evolution, encouraging a slow and controlled oxygenation of the wine as air seeps in through porous oak. This allows the highly reactive tannins from the wine and the oak to combine, creating larger tannin molecules that seem less abrasive on the palate.
This influence of the barrel upon the wine depends on so many factors. I mention oak above, but it doesn’t have to be, I’ve seen other wood essences used. Acacia is one you will sometimes find in white wine cellars in Bordeaux.
For oak the source of the tree, how slowly it grew, where it grew, (terroir doesn’t only come into play with grapes) and the age of the tree all play a role. The slower the tree grows the tighter the grain will be and the better quality the oak.
An oak tree destined for barrels may be over 200 years old. This raises a few eyebrows at a time when sustainability is a wine buzzword, but be reassured. These French oak forests are owned and tightly managed by the French state, only released for sale by auction, plot by plot, when they are ready to be felled and systematically re-planted. Thanks to Colbert’s 17th century policy of planting oak forests for war ships to fight the English, the French forests are thriving. Ironic then that so much of barrel-aged Bordeaux wine now ends up on the UK market.
Despite increasing worldwide demand, supply remains controlled explaining why these French oak barrels don’t come cheap; anything from €600 to €900 a pop depending on the size and the aging of the oak.
Once felled, how the oak is prepared and aged also influences the flavours it imparts to the wine. French oak is split not sawn. This ensures the grain of the wood is respected so the barrels remain watertight. It adds to the cost, in labour but also reduces the volume of the tree trunk that can be used for barrel staves. American oak has a less regular grain so planks are sawn meaning more volume can be used, this higher yield and ease of manipulation reduces cost. The flavour profile is different however. Several wine makers have described American oak to me as giving more coconut than vanilla aromas that are associated with French oak. You will find both in many Bordeaux cellars.
After being split and prepared into staves the wood must be aged, for anything up to three years. Exposed to wind and rain in the unpolluted areas near the forest, inelegant tannins are washed away and transformed by microscopic fungus on the surface of the cut wood.
Splitting also means that staves size will differ, assembling the staves to form a barrel is like creating a unique 3D puzzle for each individual barrel. Once the oak is matured barrel making begins. It’s a fascinating process that remains very manual – there is only so much you can mechanise. The key skills of heating the staves, whilst keeping them damp allows for sufficient flexibility to bend them to the rotund shape of a barrel. Then gentle toasting will impart the flavours to the wine; a raw barrel will bring very little to the party. Both these processes rely on the traditional skill and judgement of the barrel maker. It’s impressive to watch, I highly recommend a visit to a cooperage if you have never seen this. The finished barrels are each a work of art.
With so many variables in the process, each having an influence on the final taste profile, most barrels are tailor made to suit a particular wine maker. It’s not unusual to see barrels from several different cooperages in a chateau cellar, each one bringing its own flavour profile.
In Bordeaux barrels will be used for one to three years on average, depending upon the barrel policy of the wine maker. Their flavour profile changes with age. The newer the barrel, the more pronounced the flavours and the tannins it will impart to the wine. Vineyards producing powerful, often Cabernet driven, wines may use 100% new oak for their first wines. A more traditional Bordeaux approach is one third new, one third one year old and one third two year old barrels, combining new barrels with some already used for previous vintages. A producer making lighter wines may prefer older barrels if they are looking for the gentle evolution resulting from ageing in an oak container rather than a cement or stainless vat.
Blending defines Bordeaux wines and the use of barrels is part of this. Some wine makers will blend their wines before barrel ageing, others after or even during the ageing process. Blending just before bottling allows wine makers to profile the different lots of wine, adapting the choice of barrel to each lot (age of vines, different varietals). Other wine makers prefer to blend before ageing and rack from one barrel to another so the wine benefits from the complexity a range of barrels bring.
What happens to the barrels once the wine makers have finally finished with them? I come back to my introduction – they travel. I have seen Bordeaux oak barrels in many places. New ones are exported directly to wine makers from California to South Africa, with French oak holding a premium for many wine makers.
But used barrels travel too. They may go to other wineries. Rioja, for example, buys a lot of used barrels as much of their wine is aged for many years in older barrels looking to round out the wines through slow oxygenation rather than add powerful tannins.
As wine ages in barrels it soaks into the wood, staining it dark red and leaving a shiny deposit of tartaric crystals. This makes the barrel less porous but it also make the wood very attractive and staves from these older barrels are often up-cycled for decorative items such as bottle holders, and furniture – the limit is your inspiration.
If you replace the wine with a more powerful alcohol it acts as a solvent leaching some of the wine colour and flavours as well as the oak flavours and tannins into the alcohol. Whisky is always aged in used barrels, although once you get to Scotland they are referred to as casks. These casks come from all over the world. The thousands of barrels in the ageing warehouses (not cellars) are all shapes, sizes and colours reflecting their origins, be it Spain, Portugal, USA or France, making for a very different impression to the neat and tidy lines of barrels we see in Bordeaux cellars.
Those dark, rich aromas and mouth-feel we associate with whisky for example, owe a lot to the previous tenants of the barrel. Whisky needs long cask ageing; straight from the still spirit is white, taking its colour from the barrel. Sherry or bourbon casks are traditionally used, the decline in sherry’s popularity, reducing production has resulted in whisky distillers often financing sherry companies barrel consumption to ensure their supply.
Spirit producers are getting more adventurous, offering a diverse and growing range of finishes. A finish is when a spirit spends the last few months of its life in a different cask, often a wine barrel. It makes a difference. Compare different finishes and you’ll see a different hue depending upon the barrels used. Unsurprisingly whiskies finished with a Bordeaux or other red wine barrel will have a more ruddy colour than others.
Barrels are expensive new but after three years of wine ageing they are worth less than €100. Even so it helps if you can ensure the supply chain. Handy then that some wineries and whisky distillers belong to the same groups. At the Auchentoshen distillery near Glasgow I saw many Chateau Lagrange barrels used for their Bordeaux finish – unsurprising as drinks group Suntory owns both the winery and the distillery.
There is synergy in other groups too. Glemorangie is owned by LVMH and was one of the first whisky distilleries to introduce a complete range of different finishes including a premium Sauternes finish. No coincidence perhaps that LVMH are also the owners of Château d’Yquem. The residual sweetness of the Sauternes barrels – reminiscent perhaps of those sweet sherry barrels – imparts unique aromas and mouth feel to the whisky. On my last trip to Scotland last year I saw Sauternes barrels from Château Suduiraut used for the Sauternes finish at Tullibardine.
It was a sweet Bordeaux finish that first took me to Glenfiddich. I was there to sample a Cerons cask-finished 20-year-old Glenfiddich in barrels of Chateau du Seuil. Glenfiddich continues to innovate; the latest addition to their experimental series is Winter Storm a whisky finished in Canadian ice wine casks. Again that residual sweetness.
Why not import the whisky to Bordeaux rather than export the barrels? Upon returning to Bordeaux, I found that this is exactly what Moon Harbour is doing, finishing whisky from Scotland in barrels from Château La Louviere while they wait for the first whisky from their new Bordeaux based still.
Whisky is not the only spirit that uses old barrels; Rum enjoys the influences of used barrels too. I have already talked about the joint venture between London wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd and Medine in Mauritius. This week, at a rum tasting in Mauritius, I tasted the delicious new Sauternes finish rum at the Chamarel Rhumerie. See what I mean when I say Bordeaux barrels travel?
And what goes around comes around. The Balvenie Caribbean cask whisky is finished in – you guessed it – rum casks.
Even after all this there may still be life left in an old cask or barrel; furniture, planters or barbeque fuel perhaps? From fire to fire. The life of a barrel can be a long and winding road.