In the past, to keep and preserve the wine, leather and clay amphorae were most commonly used but they transmitted undesired flavours. It is from the Middle Ages that the use of wooden barrels came to be, allowing significant progress.
The barrel was invented by the Celts, who used it basically for the transportation of beer, a very much appreciated drink among this folk, and it consolidated quickly due to its strength, ease to be transported and stacked.
The Gauls adopted this innovative system of the time, and the trade of wine quickly became very prosperous.
At first they used all kinds of wood, no matter the kind or its origin. But from the 17th century, they realized that wood played an important role in the improvement of the wine and it was at that time when it became an element for ageing, rather than transportation and storage.
The shape and manufacturing techniques have evolved very little over the years. What has changed, though, it is the selection of different woods, the drying methods and the intensity of toasting. Oak wood, Quercus, is indeed exceptional for the conservation and ageing of wines, since it complies with conditions that other woods do not have and therefore, do not bring the desired nuances to the wines.
A favorable oxygenation, thanks to the correct porosity and permeability, the quality of the tannins and how they migrate towards the wine, the aromas, provide clear differential qualities in comparison to other woods.
And that is not all; within the Oaks family, and according to their origin, we also find significant differences. An oak from Allier (France) is not the same as an oak from the forests of Limousin, also in France. And not to mention a comparison between Hungarian and American oak. Therefore, the same wine will also be different according to the wood used.
It is essential that the exchange of components between wood and wine takes place in the best conditions. The wine has to extract some of its aromas from the oak, and, at the same time, these aromas should not dominate or step over the wine. The scents must build their own personality in the wine and the wood has to foster a harmonious, rich, full evolution. The aromas that the oak transmits should enhance the qualities of each grape variety, the qualities of the soil, the climate and the art of the wine maker.
However, the production of quality wines carries an additional cost for the producer, since the wood properties, both from the aromatic point of view as well as from the permeability perspective, are not eternal, i.e. they disappear after two or three years of use. Also, from the hygiene point of view, much care for cleanliness and disinfection is needed. Therefore, wine makers buy new barrels regularly.
Around the world we could find approximately 250 species of oak but, undeniably, the best wood for barrel manufacture comes from the forests in France.
If the character of the wood is too intense, there is a risk of creating bitter tastes and flaws. In principle, the porosity and permeability to oxygen should be mild in order to asure that the oxidation processes takes place slowly.
Fine grained woods trasmit their properties at a faster rate, and coarse-grained woods provide bitter, more rustic, wood aromas.
Another important condition of the wood is its degree of toasting, which eliminates excess water and can be light, medium or strong and, obviously, the concentration and nature of the aromas vary depending on the type of toasting. Consequently, the lighter is the wine’s vintage and concentration in organic materials, the lighter should be the toasting.
It is very important that the vintner maintains a close relationship with the cask manufacturer, in order to elaborate his wine according to his/her imaginary. The ideal would be choosing each barrel depending on each wine and knowing in advance its future evolution.
This is nothing but a glimpse of what we can find behind a wine. It is not only the glass, label, fermented grape juice, vintner or vine. There is a very important evolution prompted by the qualities of the wood. To put it in a metaphorical way, the wine needs wood as a child needs parenting to grow, evolve and mature, without dominating or crushing it but allowing it to find its own personality.