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Lise Ciolino
December 15, 2005 | Barrels, Winemaking | Lise Ciolino

The importance of Oak Barrels

Visitors to our winery always ask about barrels: What kind of barrels do you use? What's so special about oak? While whole books have been written on this subject, we'll try to keep it short(er).

Wood barrels have been used in the wine industry at least since the second century but became widespread in the 18th century for transporting wine from France to England. While originally utilitarian, oak barrels were discovered to impart wonderful aromas and flavors in the wine: vanilla, coconut, smoke, spice. Now almost all fine wine is aged in oak, both for flavor and the tiny amount of oxygen the barrel imparts over time, which adds softness and complexity to the wine.

Oak is the most popular wood used for wine barrels due to its flavors, strength and impermeability. The two main sources for oak are France and America. French oak represents the "gold standard" for wine, but must be hand-split. American oak can be cut with a band-saw, but has been known to impart more aggressive flavors including formidable tannins. French oak barrels are much more expensive (~$750 each), while American oak barrels are a bit more reasonable (~$300 each). Did you know that a 100 year old oak tree produces between two to four barrels, while a 200 year old tree can produce up to ten?

Montemaggiore uses predominantly French oak barrels (100% for our Cabernet, 85% for the Syrah) — but we like the spiciness that a touch of American oak can impart on Syrah. Each fall we put half the harvest's wine into new barrels, while the rest goes in used (or neutral) barrels. By aging the wine in 50% new barrels and 50% neutral, the oak flavors from the new barrels become well integrated with the natural flavors of the grapes. Our barrels come from a variety of coopers including Damy, Nadalie, Saury, and Seguin-Moreau. Every year we experiment with another new cooper so that we can find the best match with our estate grapes.


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