The history of winemaking has been traced back as far as 8000 BC in ancient Persia, and over time the wood barrel has become an iconic symbol of wine, so when did wine partner up with this symbol and why has it stuck around?
Wine was originally vinified, stored and transported in clay pots called amphoras. This practice was continued by the ancient Greeks and then the Roman Empire. Wine was always taken wherever these ancient civilisations travelled to. It was often safer to drink than water and it provided some nutritional value. It was only when the Romans moved up into Europe and encountered the Gauls, the Celtic people of continental Europe, that they saw how beer was transported in wooden barrels. The Romans quickly adopted these barrels that were lighter and less fragile than clay in transporting wine. After a while of transporting wine in barrels, there was a happy coincidence and they noticed wine also improved for being in the barrel.
Oak was predominantly the wood used in making barrels back then, and it is still the case now. Some customs use other woods, but oak brings the magic combination of ease of bending for contracting and tightness of grain that is watertight and imparts desirable characteristics. Other woods are either too hard to bend, have a grain that is too porous or impart characteristics that overpower the wine.
The sources of oak are specific and like with terroir in wine, each source is said to bring its nuance. The main sources are France and America with some coming from other countries such as Portugal and Russia. One of the keys is that the oak tree grows at a slow pace that creates a tight enough grain, which means warmer climates like South Africa allow trees to grow too fast for this necessary trait. As with many aspects of winemaking, France set the standard of barrel making and is considered by many as the best that a winemaker can use.
Barrels are made in a cooperage (Tonnellerie in French) by skilled people called coopers (Tonnelier in French). It is a process of splitting the wood (in Europe) or sawing (in America) into staves that are then aged before shaping into the traditional barrel form and held together by metal hoops. Finally, the barrels are toasted on the inside, and sometimes by flame to accentuate the character of the wood. The finished barrel has many variables such as origin, volume and level of toast, all of which will be specified by the winemaker based on the style of wine to be produced.
In modern winemaking using barrels or wooding techniques is about creating, elevating of finishing a wine. Other wooding techniques relates to soaking oak staves, blocks, chips, or dust in wine to impart the desired character. This process was already established by the 1960s and is still widely used. Using barrels is a significant investment in producing wine, the financial impact and the desired end product are carefully considered in deciding what barrel or wooding techniques will be used if any.
The use of oak barrels is twofold, one is to impart character, known as secondary characteristics, the second is to create an environment for the wine to settle, harmonise and mature. The effect of the oak barrel changes depending on whether it is brand new (known as first fill) or has already been used (second fill, third fill and so on). New wood imparts more character while used barrels bring a lighter touch with each iteration. A compound called vanillin is found in oak which imparts a vanilla character and the increasing level of toast of a barrel will bring increasing caramel and smoked character. With American oak being sawn, the wood cells are more open which imparts more character, most notably in the form of the vanilla flavour. Many winemakers will use a combination of barrels (new, used, origin) in creating their wines to bring balanced nuance.
At Paserene only French oak barrels are used to ensure extraordinary results across the Elements and Paserene ranges. The Chardonnay is fermented in barrels (30% new, the rest in second and third fill) and allowed to mature for 16 months in the barrel which brings a layered nuance of the wood character to the final wine. The Marathon is fermented in small upright barrels (50% new, the rest is in softer used barrels) and the cap of Cabernet Sauvignon solids is punched down to encourage gentle extraction and integration of layered wood influence. Whereas the Union was fermented in open-top concrete tanks and then transferred to second and third filled barrels to preserve the bright fruity integrity.
At Paserene great care is given to ensure that the wines produced are truly authentic to their “sense of place and people” and will guarantee a lasting legacy. When you sip on a glass of Paserene’s boutique wine, you are creating an unforgettable moment in time, one to be remembered with each mouthful.