In the field of oenology, all the processes that wine undergoes from the moment of its production – i.e. once vinification is complete – including short, long or very long ageing, represent the evolution that wine will undergo during its life.
So, once the grapes have been harvested, the stalks removed and the grapes crushed, the must will have to ferment in special containers called “fermentors” to become wine, but before it can be tasted, it will need to rest in order to “stabilise”, to mature in the colour, scents and flavours typical of the grape variety of origin, or of several varieties, in the case of a blend.
The materials commonly used in its development are steel, wood, cement, terracotta and glass, and the winemaker will have the delicate task of choosing the material he considers to be the most efficient for that type of vine and for the type of wine he wants to obtain.
These containers are the wine vases, they are used to hold the wine during the phases of its maturation and differ from each other in the material of which they are made, their size and in some cases their age.
Being in direct contact with the element they contain, they will be of fundamental importance in the evolution we are talking about, precisely because of the interactive exchange that will be created and which will lead to different results depending on the container used.
Containers and materials
It is therefore essential for the winemaker to have the experience and the right knowledge of the changes that the wine will undergo once it comes into contact with certain materials rather than others, so that he or she can choose in advance the composition of the wine vase, the size and the length of time it will be in contact with the wine, so as not to risk making the wine common or impersonal.
Certain types of wine, certain grape varieties, must comply with the laws to which they are subject, the so-called disciplinary regulations, which are more or less rigid depending on the product to be obtained, and which establish the minimum path that a wine must follow in order to be awarded a specific denomination. Following this, the winemaker, at his own unquestionable judgement, may extend the wine’s stay in the vats or in the bottle for a period even longer than that indicated by the regulations.
Given the vastness of the subject, today we will limit ourselves to a discussion of maturation in wood, leaving the illustration of other materials to future “notes”.
Wood, unlike steel, is a material that interacts a lot with the wine it is in contact with, releasing substances and allowing good micro-oxygenation through its pores.
The containers created with this material, the barrels, require a particular general maintenance and, before being used, they also need a typical treatment called “abbonimento”, necessary to conform them to the hygienic reception of the wine.
The most commonly used wood is oak, in particular oak, which is an excellent quality material able to withstand processing and treatment, before and after use, as well as being particularly suitable for conservation and long ageing.
The best woods come from the Slavonian forests in Croatia, from the French forests of the Massif Central, from the Alsatian Vosges and from central Europe. Before they can be used, they undergo dehydrating treatments that can last from 2 to 5 years.
Once the cask is filled, the wine will release many aromas such as vanilla, cloves, white pepper, black pepper, liquorice, tobacco, coffee, dried rose and others, in proportion to the level of toasting achieved, which, depending on the request, may be light, medium or strong.
It is important to emphasize that the wood in contact with the wine can at best enhance its existing properties, but nothing more; it can never improve it, should the product itself be disappointing.
With regard to the size, if the barrel is small, there will be a greater percentage of surface area of wine in contact with the wood, and therefore a good and faster evolution will occur, on the contrary, if the barrel is large, there will be a smaller surface area of wine in contact with the wood, and therefore a lesser and slower evolution.
Most commonly used wooden barrels
LARGE BARRELS, they have a capacity that usually varies from 3,000 to 5,000 liters and even more, and are used both for fermentation of the must (creation of the wine) and for maturation or long ageing.
On the contrary, the contact between wine and wood is less than in smaller barrels, so the tertiary scents (those coming from maturation) will be very delicate, leaving the primary ones (of the vine, of the grapes) and the secondary ones (of vinification, of fermentation of the must) to emerge.
Reducing the size of the barrel, we find the TONNEAU, of 500 liters, although some even reach 700 liters; the contact between wine and wood is greater than in large barrels, but less than in smaller ones such as barriques, so the oxygenation and the contribution of tertiary scents will be more intense than in large vats and more delicate than in barriques.
Reducing the size of the barrel even further, and consequently also its capacity, we find the most widespread and preferred in the world, the BARRIQUES, with a capacity of 225 liters.
The contact between wine and wood is greater than in tonneaux and large barrels, therefore oxygenation, the release of tannins from the wood and toasted scents will be greater than in the previous barrels and the contribution of tertiary aromas will be more vigorous, partially overlapping the primary and secondary aromas.
The smallest of all are the BARILI which never exceed 15-16 liters, they are usually used for those wines that do not require any bottling and it is customary to pour them directly into jugs and then serve them at the table. They do not have a great commercial resonance, except for being used as furnishing elements in typical restaurants because of their attractive appearance.
In conclusion, the last aspect to evaluate in order to have a controlled maturation is the age of the barrel, or better still, whether it has been used before or is at its first “passage” of wine.
If the barrel is new, therefore at its first “passage”, there will be a discrete phenomenon of transfer of tannins and aromas from the wood to the wine, enriched with appreciable sweet and astringent notes that will fade over the years.
It is worth reiterating that the aim is not to give a new flavour to the wine as it evolves, nor to aromatize it, but to make it interact with the external environment that surrounds it, which will lead to a transformation in colour, aroma and taste.
From a sensory point of view, the passage in wood will accompany the wine from a phase of immaturity, in which it will be acrid, pungent, unripe, to a phase of complete maturity, therefore soft, rounded, gentle.
The colour will gradually change from red with violet reflections to garnet to orange tones, or from straw yellow with greenish reflections to golden.
The nose will develop with an increase in spicy, jammy and roasted notes, with references to leather, cocoa and tobacco.
On the palate, there will be a gradual overall softening, with a weakening of the acids and the wine’s tannins coming closer to those of the wood. The best results are obtained from ageing between 18 and 24 months, which allows the wine to mature fully and gradually.