Wooden Barrels for the Australian (or any) Home Winemaker
Wooden barrels are an indispensible tool to have for the Australian home winemaker in which to age their wines or just simply to use as a storage medium. However, they are nearly impossible to obtain outside and established wine-making area.
The cheapest are second-hand, but for dry wine they are not worth the risks involved. The wine in them could have gone sour or they may not have been properly washed, and this will likely result in vinegar for you instead of wine. Even if you are sure of the history of second-hand barrels, soak them in washing soda and later with metabisulphite.
There are two types of barrels available today in Australia. Some are made from Australian timbers and others from imported timbers. The Australian barrels are waxed on the inside, which protects the wine from excessive tannin that will give your wine a bitter taste. However, it is still a good idea to treat it with a strong solution of soda ash. The wax also prevents the wine from aging, which may seem to go against the reason why you’d want to store the wine. But Australian wine barrels are generally used as a storage device, much like a concrete container. Just like all other wine barrels, it has its problems, such as evaporation through the cracks in the wine or shrinking if left empty. Therefore, regular topping up of wine is needed on a regular basis.
The other kinds of barrels are made from French or American white oak. Although the timber is imported, the barrels are constructed in Australia by a number of coopers in the various winemaking areas. Therefore, new imported oak barrels are relatively easy to obtain. The oak is not waxed and can give a very pleasant flavour to wine. The wine also “breathes” and matures through a process of controlled oxidation. Although they will greatly improve the taste of the wine, these barrels have certain disadvantages :
Cost – They are an expensive form of storage. For barrels less than 10 gallons in volume, the price per gallon goes up quite steeply, so barrels of 10 gallons are pretty much the minimum feasible size to purchase.
Topping up – the problems of evaporation are even greater than with waxed barrels. Small quantities of wine are constantly needed for topping up.
Cleaning – you cannot scrub a barrel as it only has one small opening. You can only rinse the barrel and swirl the water around. Fro this reason, barrels are unsuitable to use after fermentation. Wine must be reasonably clear before being stored in barrels.
Drying out – barrels must be kept full or the staves with shrink and leak. The best way to keep a barrel fresh is to store wine in it constantly. When you are not using it for wine, keep it full of water with 4 ounces of potassium metabisulphite and 1 ounce of sulphuric acid added per 100 gallons
“Over Oaking”- With these types of barrels, there is the danger of “over-oaking” wine. A wine label reading “matured in small French oak barrels for two years” refers to the large 65 or even 100 gallon barrels that are probably a few years old. A new 10 gallon barrel will give the same amount of oak flavour in two to three months. If you bottle at this stage, you then run into the problem of drying out, as illustrated in problem #4.
Although wine barrels have associate problems, they are a great tool to have if you are going to store large amounts of wine for an extended period of time. If you are going to purchase a wine barrel, determine the reason you need it (ie purely for storage or for imparting a pleasant flavour to the wine) and then buy the best type for the size you need and one that suits your budget.