All About Barrels

Q: Barrels – Why a particular forest? Is it all about flavor? What about structure? Why are most of our barrels the same size?

ANSWER – There are over 600 designated forests in France alone along with many other countries sourcing oak like Hungary, Portugal, Russia etc. Each forest has its own particular character as well as variations in oak types. The main oak species in Europe is Quercus robur with only two of its sub-species (Q. sessilis and Q. pendunculata) out of the 400 or so being suited to wine. The difference of French and American oak is due to the different species grown here which is Quercus alba. At JanKris I have a distinct preference for the forests in France that offer really tight grain oak so the pickup is more defined. These forests typically include Allier (al-ee-air) and Troncais (tron-say).

When comparing oaks from France and America, tests indicate that French oak gives 2 ½ times the extraction of total ellagitannin phenolics (spiciness, nuttiness), but American oak confers more flavour and odourants on a comparative basis. These trends generally extend to the end of the third fill of the barrel.

In addition to flavour, there is a gentle exchange of oxygen through the staves (side pieces) and head boards that provides subtle development and integration.

Oak adds a critical part to the structure of many wines. It adds another ‘dimension’ or layer to the complex nature of wine. In Chardonnay for example, it tends to enhance the varietal characteristics of the wine and provide support to the length of flavour as well as introducing complex tannin. In reds, it offers similar assistance but due to the more complex nature of reds than whites it is critical in integrating all the components to produce a balanced and multi-layered product.

The barrel size dictates the amount of oak extraction, ie., the smaller the barrel size

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the more wine is in contact with its surface area. So effectively smaller barrels pick up more oak and quicker than larger barrels. The Bordeaux barrique we use is typically 225 litres or 59 gallons (US) and the surface area ratio for our wines and barriques is ideal. Additionally, it makes practical sense to have the barrels the same size for handling and storage.

Cheers, Chris

Chris Cameron is the winemaker at Jan Kris Winery in Paso Robles and has had a dynamic career in the wine industry with over 30 vintages and plenty of spectacular and challenging harvests, wines and winery experiences.
With his Aussie roots, quick wit and wealth of experience his contributions should not be missed. Read more, or ask your own question- Ask the Winemaker.