Has Wine Finally Left The Oak Barrel Behind?

Wine hasn’t always been aged in oak barrels. In fact, wine greatly predates the oak barrels, and the advent of the oak wine barrel was primarily transportation-driven (you can read more about that on a past blog series). Other early tanks-of-the-trade were ceramic or clay. While these tools did a good job of protecting the wine from light, they were heavy, fragile and impractical for travel. Thus, when the oak barrel came around, the earthen tanks faded out.

However, in today’s modern wine industry, oak barrels are becoming a thing of the past. And, surprisingly, the two most popular materials in winemaking are the ultra-modern stainless steel and concrete tanks that are highly reminiscent of old clay/ceramic tools.

Stainless steel may not have been available to early winemakers, but it has solidified itself as a staple of the modern wine industry. Stainless steel tanks are commonly used across beverages for brewing beer, distilling spirits and fermenting wine grapes. Additionally, stainless steel wine barrels or stainless steel wine drums, have increased in popularity over recent decades.

Stainless steel wine barrels can be ordered in a variety of sizes and configurations and give winemakers an opportunity to experiment and make smaller batches of wine without worry of wasted resources. Oak barrels have grown prohibitively expensive and are far less customizeable. Furthermore, the sleek stainless steel is easier to clean, sanitize and reuse making it as environmentally friendly as it is economical. But a solution is only strong if it works for the job, and stainless steel works hard — giving winemakers absolute control over oxidization and flavor.

So how do concrete tanks stack up? Well, first of all, they don’t stack up. Concrete is a re-emerging trend in winemaking, but only in the fermentation process, whereas stainless steel can be utilized throughout aging, storage and distribution. And unlike stainless steel, concrete tanks trap small pockets of air, exposing wine to oxygen. If you’re looking for a crisp, clean white wine, this might be a negative. But, if you can relinquish the control stainless steel gives you, you might appreciate the added dash of character allowed by this limited oxidization. Just like stainless steel, concrete doesn’t impart any flavors onto the wine, but this small amount of oxygen creates fruit-forward wines with a little more minerality and texture. True, you can achieve similar results with stainless steel, but for the winemaker who wants to be a little bit more hands-off and/or old-fashioned, concrete is a definite option.

Whether you choose to play in stainless steel, concrete or both, you’ll be playing in a larger sandbox than allowed with oak barrels. Oak may have been a long-time favorite of the winemaking industry, but between the cost, carbon-footprint and unpredictability of aging and storing wine in oak barrels, it is unsurprising that the creative and cutting-edge winemakers of today are thinking outside the traditional barrel.