Different Types of Wine Barrels - And How they Affect the Wines

Winemaking is full of complexities. With over 10,000 types of wine grapes in the world, the number of possibilities for wine seems limitless. Every step of the winemaking process has the ability to alter a wine’s profile, affecting its tasting notes, aroma, and so much more. One of the most critical and influential parts of the processing is called aging, which occurs after the wine has been fermented and clarified. One of the most popular ways to age wine is to use a barrel. There are excellent reasons for this method, but not all barrels are made alike! 

Oak Barrels

When you think of wine, the picture that often comes to mind is a room filled with oak barrels. Oak is easily the most popular type of barrel for aging wine because of its ability to mellow bitterness and impart desirable flavor notes during the aging process. Oak barrels are not all alike, however. American and French varieties accomplish different things. 

  • American Oak - American oak has a wider grain compared to its French counterpart, and the result of this tends to be sweeter wines with notes of vanilla, dill, and coconut. That’s quite a wide range. Notes of sweet spices are also prevalent in wine aged in oak from the United States. 
  • French Oak - There is an air of sophistication to French wine. Its flavors tend to be less bold but skew towards dark chocolate, coffee, and spices more on the savory side. This is the ELLMAN barrel of choice! 

Certain types of wine have better outcomes in a particular type of oak, while others age just as well in either. Cabernet Sauvignons are partial to French oak while Zinfandel is more at home in the American variety, but Syrah can be aged in either while yielding excellent results. 

Other Wooden Barrels

In addition to oak, there are other types of wood used for wine barrels. Though these are all considerably less common, some are gaining traction for certain types of wine. 

  • Acacia - This type of wood has a growing fanbase when used to age wines like Sauvignon Blanc, and is said to add floral tasting notes. 
  • Cherry - Cherry is a tricky wood to use for wine barrels. It has pitfalls, including allowing too much oxygenation (which bleeds away the fresh flavor and gives rise to tannins), but is still used by a small number of winemakers due to its pleasant aromatics and ability to impart unique flavor notes. 

Stainless Steel Barrels 

Stainless steel barrels are becoming more popular, especially for varieties of wine that don’t benefit from the flavor notes imparted by other barrels. White wines, which do not have bitter tannins to account for, can benefit from being aged in steel rather than wood. Riesling and Pinot grigio make great choices for stainless steel aged wine, which allows them to shine without any outside influence. 

It’s All Preference

Ultimately, the type of barrel used to age wine depends entirely on what a winemaker wants to impart on their product. Perhaps the wine can speak for itself and stainless steel will allow it to do so, or perhaps it is at its best with the mellow dark chocolate achieved by French oak, ELLMAN’s go-to barrel. Whatever the case, every type of barrel has its own set of unique benefits. 

If you are ready to see a Napa Valley vineyard up close and personal, one of the best Napa family vineyards is ELLMAN. With the expertise of winemaker Andy Erickson, ELLMAN Family Vineyards is one of the most beautiful wineries in Napa. You can try our wine at one of our Downtown Napa tasting rooms, or see our vinery to see what makes us one of the top wineries in Napa. Find out more about our wines here, or learn how to become a member of our allocation list and Ellevate Your Cellar. We hope to see you soon!