The Magic of the Oak Barrel: a Genie in a Bottle or a Witches Cauldron?

The Magic of the Oak Barrel: a Genie in a Bottle or a Witches Cauldron?

Posted by Matteo Lahm on 29th Nov 2023

If you are haunted by the seductive siren of barrel aging, you are not alone. They are sexy and romantic so what’s not to like? Well, if you do not want to be under their spell like the great Ulysses lost in the winemaking sea, read on. You need to arm yourself with knowledge before their seduction leaves you with less money in your pocket and the potential loss of entire batches. Barrel aging whispers with the echoes of tradition and the tantalizing promise of a more complex flavor profile. But let me tell you, my friend, you need to know it's not all rose petals and Pinot Noir. Barrel aging can make your wine sing like Pavarotti, but you need the proper orchestral accompaniment or you'll wind up with a town cryer. Let’s dive into to those witchy details.

Oak barrels, particularly the new ones, can be as tricky as a sommelier's wine list. They're like that high-maintenance partner who not only demands constant attention and care but will also enact merciless revenge if it is not given. If you're not vigilant, they can transform your lovingly crafted wine into an undrinkable disaster faster than you can say "over-oaked."

Why, you ask? Before we get into the storage and care, let’s talk about size because if you are a home winemaker, you are probably considering smaller barrels. This is a case where size really matters and contrary to conventional wisdom, the smaller they are, the worse they can screw your wine. It's all about the surface area ratio to fluid. The smaller the barrel, the quicker your wine can become over-oaked. That's why commercial wineries not only use large barrels but rotate the wine into older neutral barrels for long term aging. A petite 5-gallon new barrel can turn your wine into a wooden monstrosity in a matter of weeks.

But let's say you're not easily scared. You're ready to embrace the challenge. Well, strap in, because these barrels need to be cleaned and stored with the precision of a master watchmaker.

First things first, new barrels are ready to fill immediately upon receipt. But if you're not ready to fill it, you better store it in a cool place. And for the love of Dionysus, avoid excessively moist places. You don't want mold to crash your wine party. They are made of wood and in case you need a visual, imagine your basement after a flood.

So, assuming you get the storage right for your new barrel, now let’s move on to prep. Preparing your barrel for wine is a meticulous process that involves a water soak and test. This is not a step to be rushed or overlooked, as it's crucial for ensuring the integrity of your barrel and the quality of your wine. If you were to naively just fill your new barrel with your wine, imagine a colander and what you don’t lose from leaks, the rest will be absorbed right into the wood.

Let’s talk about the hot water method first. You'll need to fill the barrel with at least 3-5 gallons of filtered, chlorine-free, hot water. The hotter the better, with 180°F or 82°C being the ideal temperature. That is pretty hot, and it is a lot of water. Not only will you need a big pot, you will need one that has never been used to make pasta. Then you will need the elbow grease to lift it and pour it without burning yourself. Once you get beyond that hump, you will need more brawn for what comes next. Once filled, secure a silicone bung in the bunghole and start the barrel rotation dance. This involves rotating the barrel from side to side, ensuring the hot water comes into contact with every inch of the barrel’s interior.

Next, you'll need to let the barrel stand upright on one head for up to 4 hours. This allows the head of the barrel to completely hydrate. Then, repeat the process with the other head. After this hydration marathon, check for any leakage. If all is clear, empty the barrel and let it drain and dry completely for about an hour before filling it with wine.

If you prefer the cold water method, you'll need to completely fill the barrel with filtered, chlorine-free, cold water. This is a slower process, requiring the barrel to re-hydrate for 24 to 48 hours. Patience is key here. After the waiting period, you'll need to check for any leakage. If there's no sign of leakage, empty the barrel and let it drain and dry completely for about an hour.

Remember, whether you choose the hot or cold water method, the goal is the same: to prepare your barrel for the wine without causing any damage or introducing any unwanted elements. It's a delicate balance, but with careful attention and patience, you can ensure your barrel is ready for the winemaking journey ahead. If you spot any leakage, you'll need to drain the barrel, let it dry, and repeat the process. If the leakage persists, you might need to call in the experts.

Alright, now let's dive deeper into the nitty-gritty of storage. If you treat your barrels like an afterthought, you're setting yourself up for a bacterial bonanza. And let me tell you, these aren't the kind of guests you want at your wine party. They're the party crashers who don't know when to leave and end up spoiling all the fun.

First off, we've got Brettanomyces, or "Brett" for short. This little devil is a yeast, not a bacteria, but it's just as troublesome. It's notorious for imparting a barnyard or medicinal taste to your wine. Think wet dog meets Band-Aids. Not exactly the tasting notes you were aiming for, right?

Next up, we have Lactobacillus. This bacteria is a lactic acid producer. While it's a superstar in the yogurt world, it's a villain in the wine world. It can cause a spoilage known as lactic acid bacteria spoilage, which can make your wine taste sour and off. It's like inviting a punk band to a classical music concert.

And last but not least, there's Acetobacter. This bacteria is the bane of winemakers everywhere. It can turn your wine into vinegar. Yes, you heard that right. Vinegar. Imagine uncorking a bottle of your carefully crafted wine, only to find it's better suited for salad dressing.

So, how do you avoid these unwelcome guests? It all comes down to proper cleaning and storage. You need to treat your barrels with the same care and attention you'd give to your grapes. This means regular cleaning, proper hydration, and careful storage in a cool, dry place. Remember, a little effort now can save you a whole lot of heartache (and vinegar) later.

There are several methods for storing your barrels, each with their own pros and cons. Dry storage involves rinsing, draining, sulfur gassing, and leaving the barrel to dry. Wet storage, on the other hand, involves filling the barrel with water and a solution of citric acid and Potassium Metabisulfite and you need both. Your water needs to be a minimum of a 3.5 pH to establish an environment that is not favorable for bacterial growth. The sulfites will keep it out but if you were to use just sulfites, your barrel will still be a cesspool of contaminants. Sulfites cannot even protect wine that is higher than a 3.5 pH. So, you will need the SO2 and an acidic enough environment to keep those pesky critters out of your barrel.

And don't forget about sanitizing a barrel that's already been used. This involves filling it with cold water, adding Potassium Metabisulphite and citric acid, letting it stand for 48 hours, and then rinsing it with cold water.

So, there you have it, my winemaking compadre. The world of oak barrels is a complex one, filled with hard work, potential pitfalls, but also rewards. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility. If you're not careful, your oak barrel could turn into the wicked witch of the west transforming your wine into a wooden disaster. But if you're patient, precise, and diligent, it can be "I Dream of Genie." It could add a complexity to your wine that will make all your winemaking wishes come true. If you can get the storage and hydration process right, and you can bulk age properly, your wine will undergo changes and enhancements that are unmatched. All that said, there are alternatives to oaking your wine that are easier and less labor intensive. Chips and spirals can do the job but in the end, it is your wine. Good luck!