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During a recent tour of the Okanagan, it was clear that winemakers love to discuss barrels – and barriques, casks and foudres. Visits to cellars from Vernon to Osoyoos introduced guests to the different sizes and types of oak employed during fermentation and aging. The winemakers shared why they continue to use equipment that originated in ancient times, and spoke of the effectiveness of stainless-steel tanks and concrete vessels for their various styles.
Twenty years ago, cellars in the Okanagan would have been split between barrels made from American oak and those from French oak, with the odd container fashioned from Hungarian or Canadian oak. Today, the taste for French oak, which has a tighter grain than other types and is more beneficial for production, has seen many wineries stop using barrels produced with other varieties.
When ordering barrels from cooperages located in France, the United States or elsewhere, winemakers can specify the origin of oak as well as the desired toasting level. Depending on the quality and treatment of the wood, winemakers pay around $900 to more than $2,000 CDN for each traditional 225-litre barrel, with French oak versions fetching the most money. The worldwide popularity of French oak means its cost continues to increase.
Another trend is to select larger barrel sizes to reduce the influence the wood has on the wine. Top chardonnay and pinot noir producers are increasingly using puncheons, which hold 500 litres. They like that there’s less surface area in direct contact with the wine compared with a traditional barrel, which holds 225 litres (the equivalent of 24 cases of wine). Large format vessels, including foudres, are becoming more common at high quality B.C. wineries such as CheckMate, Martin’s Lane and Phantom Creek.
Oak extraction occurs at a higher rate when the barrel is new. Wines aged in 100-per-cent new oak are more likely to have intense flavours and aromas of spice, vanilla or cedar. After three or four years of use, the wood flavourings are depleted. Many winemakers use these older barrels – or “neutral barrels,” as they’re often called – to soften the character of a wine while preserving the fruit flavours by not adding any additional notes.
After the wine has fermented or aged, winemakers will select and blend desirable barrels to produce their vintages. The contents are combined into large stainless-steel tanks in preparation for either bottling or extended aging in the cellar.
When you find a style of wine that you really enjoy, pay attention to how it was made to help guide your next purchase.