April 3, 2022 8:56 pm

Mason

Have you ever wondered how many bottles of wine in a barrel? The answer is simply due to a practical organization with a historical basis, in a barrel of 50 gallons, fits exactly 300 bottles of wine.

This is closely linked to the fact that the capacity of a bottle of wine was standardized in the 19th century because the main wine producers were the French and their main customers were the English. But despite this, the English never adopted the same system of measurements as the French, so the unit of volume that remained in use was the “imperial gallon” which was equivalent to 4.54609 liters. To simplify the conversion accounts, they transported Bordeaux wine in 225-liter barrels, exactly 50 gallons, corresponding to 300 bottles of 750 ml.

It is normal to find wines in the market in 750 ml bottles and not in one liter (1000 ml) bottles. Since it is normal to get 6 bottles of one gallon and thus find cases of 6 and 12 bottles in the different points of sale.

But that’s not all, the use of wine barrels is closely linked to the history of wine, experts say that in ancient times the Romans used amphorae for storage. However, since they discovered that barrels were much more “useful” for transportation, they made this maturation and fermentation system official.

The barrel oxygenates the wine and transfers some nuances or others depending on the wood chosen. The choice of wood is a decision made by the winemaker, as it is a determining factor in the type of wine he wants to make.

How many types of wine barrels are there?

Wine barrels are cylindrical and convex wooden containers in which wines are introduced for fermentation. Or in the case of aging barrels, they are the ones that are in charge of their aging.

Curiously, wine used to be served directly from the barrel in ancient times. Although this custom gradually disappeared with the appearance of bottles, it gave way to barrels becoming intermediaries.

There are many criteria to classify the different types of wine barrels and their quality: the type of wood with which they have been manufactured, the number of vintages they have been in service, or the capacity they can hold.

The manufacture of the barrel

To make the barrels, the pieces of oak are heated to give them their characteristic curvature. This process also interferes with the properties that the wine will inherit so that the more toasted, the fewer tannins it will contribute.

Although barrels have been made from different types of wood such as cherry, chestnut, or pine, the most common is oak, since its characteristics make it the most suitable for wine maturation. However, not all types of oak are suitable for this purpose. For this reason, the most commonly used are French and American oak barrels.

First of all, as regards the performance of the wood, it is necessary to mention that French oak requires the wood to be cut in the grain direction so that the barrels can be impermeable. This characteristic causes a considerable amount of wood to be wasted, with a yield of 20-25%. American oak, on the other hand, does not have this disadvantage, so it is indifferent to the grain direction, with a yield of around 50%.

Types of wine barrels according to their size

The barrels are available in capacities of 190 liters, 225 liters, 250 liters, 300 liters (also called hogshead), 450 liters (also called puncheon), 500 liters (also called butt cask), and 650 liters (also called pipe cask). The most commonly used is the 225 liters.

However, concerning the classification of wine barrels according to their size, we can differentiate the barrels from the tun.

Barrels are those that can be moved more easily and, because of their size, can be stacked horizontally in rows. The barrels form the image that we can see in many wineries, one on top of the other.

On the other hand, butts are similar in size to barrels, although they are larger and usually have more metal strapping. Before the butt casks, you can find hogsheads that hold 300l and puncheons that hold 450l, and afterward, you have the pipe casks, which hold 650l.

Smaller barrels, called kegs or rundlets, are used to serve wine directly without bottling. They are usually found in bars, taverns, or homes. The capacity of kegs ranges from one to thirty-six liters.

On the other hand, the so-called tuns are the largest wine barrels. These remain fixed to the ground, in a vertical position, and without moving. And unlike ordinary wine barrels, the tuns have a wider bottom and do not have the characteristic oval shape. They hold large quantities of wine, from 1,000 to 50,000 liters.

Different types of wine barrels according to the wood used

Oak barrels, whether American or French, are the most commonly used, but there are several options such as cherry or acacia that are used all over the world. The properties of the wood from which the vats and barrels are made are transferred to the wines during aging, to improve their organoleptic properties. Wine barrels are made in cooperages and are mainly made from European oak, generally French oak, American oak, or a combination of both types.

The quality of the wood of the wine barrel will have a lot to say in the final taste of the wine. Although other types of wood are used, oak is the most commonly used because of its good treatment of the wine and the properties it gives it. Oak gives unmistakable aromas to the wine and oxygenates it through its pores.

French oak

This material is softer than American oak, the oxygenation of the wine is slower, therefore, it provides soft and delicate flavors. The growth of the tree plays a major role in the quality of the wood. If the growth is slower, the grain is finer and therefore better.

American oak

The wood is more resistant, harder, and permeable, which translates into much more powerful touches, which are achieved much more quickly. It provides strong aromas such as cocoa or coffee and also tends to transfer fewer tannins.

Spanish oak

It has more similarities with its French counterpart due to the geographical area in which it is located. It is usually the material of choice for red wines and has great oenological potential as it provides vanilla and smoky nuances.

Acacia

Two varieties can be distinguished depending on the degree of toasting the wood has, if it is not toasted it will be used in white wines due to the fresh touches it transmits, if on the contrary it is partially toasted it can also be used for the preservation of red wines.

Cherry

As with acacia wood, there are two types of barrels for cherry wood, both are suitable for reds and whites. It has a medium toasting level and provides much more intense plum or cherry nuances.

The choice of a good barrel is made by the winemaker since it is decisive for the elaboration of the wine. In addition to the classification that exists according to the type of material that makes up a barrel, the level of toasting will also give rise to different categories:

  • If it is strong it will provide smoky nuances, in medium grade cocoa or vanilla essences can be appreciated.
  • If it is medium, more spicy notes, vanilla and chocolate stand out.
  • If it is high, the spicy notes decrease and the smoky, coffee, and vanilla notes increase.
  • And if the toast is light, it transfers subtle nutty or coconut aromas.

Finally, we can differentiate between different types of wine according to the time spent in the barrel:

  • Aging wines: they remain a minimum of 24 months resting in the cellar, of which 6 have to be in a barrel.
  • Reserve wines: they must spend a minimum of 36 months resting in the cellar, at least 12 months in barrels.
  • Grand Reserve wines: a minimum of 60 months in the cellar and at least 18 months in barrel.

In conclusion, for a good wine to reach your table and become your companion, it must go through a whole process that has much to do with the barrel in which it is stored. That flavor that makes it unique, characteristic and special depends on its good storage.

It is important to mention that the newer the barrel, the better the wine. The slower the growth of the oak, the better the quality. In short, good soil work, a good vineyard, and storage in a good quality barrel are the essential starting point for great wine.

About the Author

Mason grew up in the heart of the Willamette valley in Oregon, which is famous for it's fertile soil and the high quality grapes produced there. Living just minutes from world renown wineries, he developed an appreciation for wine early on. Today, he enjoys spending his time discovering new wines and sharing his love for wine with others.

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