Some wines need to be aged; others don’t. Some are young and don’t need to spend any time in the barrel to attain the properties we do want to achieve, such as with the single-vineyard wines, for example.
We here at Jean Leon would like to tell you about some of the techniques used to age wines. Some of you will be thinking, “the traditional barrels?” Exactly, but there are also other techniques that are becoming more established in the wine sector, and wine producers who are constantly looking to innovate. How? We’re going to try to give you a short summary based on our own experience.
As we mentioned, oak barrels have traditionally been the number-one containers. Wood has always been the material of choice, whether from more classic sources like France and the USA, or from Eastern Europe. Other types of wood used include acacia, for white wines; cherry, which intensifies red fruits; and chestnut, a more versatile wood.
Nowadays, earthenware is being used as well. It’s microporous, from an organic source, and unquestionably a historical element, making it popular in many wineries whose aging spaces are now home to large jars or amphorae where the wines are rested. And the same thing that is happening with the different types of wood is happening with earthenware: Producers have already started experimenting with different types of clay to see what kind of sensory effects the different compositions have on the wine.
Other kinds of containers are made from concrete. This is a material that has traditionally been used to build vessels in cellars, as evidenced by the concrete lacus found in Roman villas from the first centuries of the Common Era. The concrete containers of today, however, are coated with epoxy to prevent calcium and iron from seeping into the wine.
Nowadays there’s also a cement for food use that doesn’t transfer unwanted particles and that has a high degree of porosity similar to micro-oxygenation, interacting with the wine this way. This material allows us to get milder acidity, and there are lots of different shapes: truncated cones, ovals, round, rectangular…
Egg-shaped containers, meanwhile, facilitate the suspension of lees during alcoholic fermentation and after this fermentation when the wine has accumulated CO2. There are also tapered vats, which make it easier to break the cap during harvest.
In this post, we don’t want to overlook wood as an ideal material for aging wine; quite the opposite. What we want to do is to provide some alternatives, but without ignoring the material that has the strongest tradition, not for the years, but for the properties it gives the wine. Examples of wooden containers are the traditional 225-l or 300-l barrels, like the ones we have at Jean Leon, or the foudres or larger casks that are popular in different areas of Spain and in Europe. These are fairly widespread in France and very popular in Italy, for example, while areas like Tuscany and Piedmont are where they are most firmly established.
How are they different from oak barrels? They are basically differentiated by the type of wood grain; in other words, by the size and regularity of the tree’s growth rings. This size and regularity depends on two factors: the oak species and the origin (soil and climatic conditions in the area). In general, finer grain allows for longer aging. After choosing the grain, we have to choose the type of toasting for the wood. This will depend on our aim and the variety to be aged. The toasting can strengthen notes of caramel, toffee, spice, red fruits, or flowers… The barrel will also be our ally in taming the tannins, which are aggressive at the end of fermentation and soften little by little.
There are other containers as well, such as stainless steel or plastic. The varieties are infinite and each gives the wine something special. Given our tradition, our way of understanding winemaking, and the personality of our wines, we especially like containers such as oak barrels, foudres, or those made from cement (whether egg-shaped or not). If you’d like to find out more about our techniques, we’ll be happy to have you at our winery. You’re always very welcome! 😉