When you think of winemaking, you might picture rows of rustic, wine-filled barrels hidden away in a chilly, dark cellar. For a couple thousand years, barrels have been storing wine and also contributing to its flavors, colors, textures and overall character.
Before wood barrels, ancient Greeks stored their wine in clay jars. Celtic society started using wooden barrels for wine storage around 50BC. Eventually, Roman winemakers also realized that wooden barrels were more durable, easier to transport and could hold more wine than pottery. By the second century, wood barrels were the wine containers of choice. Palm wood was used to make some of the earliest wine barrels, but it didn't take long for winemakers to realize that oak was a better option. Today, American and French oak are the most popular materials for wood barrels.
Missouri is a leading producer of wood barrels for wineries around the world. A&K Cooperage in Higbee, Bratcher Cooperage in Liberty, Hoffmeister Barrelworks in Ste. Genevieve County and Independent Stave Company's Missouri Cooperage in Lebanon all manufacture white oak barrels. McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba provides wine barrel-makers with narrow, curved strips of wood, called staves, which are used to form the sides of a barrel.
In general, American oak barrels produce bolder flavors, while French oak barrels give wines more subtle aromas. Vanilla is a common flavor that comes from oak barrels. The aromas of spices, coffee, caramel and chocolate are also prevalent. Wood barrels are often heated on the inside to create levels of toast from light to heavy. Wines that mature in heavily toasted barrels typically have more layered, complex oak flavors.
Oak barrels are porous and cause wine to evaporate. Wine makers frequently add wine to their barrels in a process known as "topping off." This prevents the wine from spoiling due to too much contact with oxygen. Oak barrels lose their flavor after about five to seven years of use. Old oak barrels can be stylishly re-purposed into items like planters, tables, chairs and light fixtures. Wine barrel staves are used in grilling to add a smoky, red-wine flavor to steak and seafood.
Barrels are an important part of the winemaking process. Without them, many of Missouri's award-winning wines wouldn't have their distinctive and delicious qualities.
Missouri wines pair well with barrel aging!