Large barrel, barrique, tonneaux: an in-depth look at wine barrel types

In the article on winemaking, we covered the topic of aging red wine, which begins in barrels and then ends in bottles. If you are wondering what are the different types of barrels, what is the difference between barrique, tonneaux and barrel or how much wine they contain, keep reading and we will answer all your questions! Wine barrels, in fact, are not only storage vessels, but real “tools” that influence the maturation of wine, giving distinctive characteristics to its structure, taste and smell.

What are the different types of barrels?

There are different types of barrels: the first major categorization is about material. In most cases, the material used for barrels is wood, which in turn can be Oak (the most widely used), Chestnut, Cherry, Acacia, Walnut, Birch, and it usually comes from France, Slovenia, or America. Originally, however, barrels were made of concrete to preserve the characteristics of the grapes; currently, some wineries adopt concrete barrels to age some wines.

Next, barrels differ in size: there are small barrels, that is, barriques and pièces and tonneaux, and large barrels.

Finally, they also differ in terms of toasting – a practice that consists of burning the inside of the container – which can be more or less durable and intense.

Barrique vs. larger Barrel: comparison and differences

Of all the types of barrels, the most frequently asked question on this topic is about the difference between a barrique and a large barrel.

The barrique is a small barrel, usually made of oak, of 225 liters, thus smaller than a classic barrel. This feature allows more contact between the wine and the wood, accelerating oxidation and enriching the wine with finer tannins and greater aromatic complexity than in larger barrels, where the amount of wine is greater and therefore oxygenation is slower. If, on the other hand, you are wondering what aroma a barrel yields to wine, oak barrels are known to yield delicate aromas of vanilla, spices, and toasty notes that blend with the wine’s natural profile.

Barrique was introduced in the 1980s. Its use, especially in the Piedmontese Langhe region, was seen as a revolutionary choice and, within a few years, it became a real trend that peaked in the 1990s and 2000s.

Like all trends and revolutions, different schools of thought arose, the supporters of barrique and the detractors, which marked the territory.
In the last decade, the use of Barrique has gradually decreased, firstly because, in some cases, the use of barrique did not bring the expected results from an organoleptic point of view, and secondly, many producers have returned to a preference for longer aging in large barrels.

The great lesson we can learn from this story is that no barrel is better than another, each territory and type of wine have different needs and peculiarities; the choice of barrel, therefore, must be made to enhance them during aging.

Tonneau: what is it and how much wine does it contain?

The tonneau is a barrel larger than the barrique, with a capacity ranging from 500 to 900 gallons, used for wines that need aging that is not dominated by contact with wood.

The Size of Barrels: how much does a wine barrel hold?

Wine barrels can vary greatly in size, from the 220-gallon barrels to the 10,000-gallon or larger barrels used for wines that benefit from longer aging.

A well-maintained wooden barrel can last between 20 and 30 years. Durability is influenced by the type of wood, frequency of use, maintenance and the type of wine it contains. Barrel age is measured in “passages,” that is, by counting the number of wines that have completed the aging period within them. The newer the barrels are – first passage – the more they release most of the releasable substances from the wood. As time passes, aromatic and tannic release decreases until it almost disappears altogether.

What is the best wood for barrels?

Usually, the best wood for barrels is French oak, which is highly valued for its fine grain and ability to integrate well with the wine, imparting complex but not overpowering aromas.

However, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the best barrels for wine. The choice depends on the type of wine, the philosophy and idea of the producer, and regional preferences. French oak, American oak, and Slavonian oak barrels are among the most popular for aging quality red wines.

Wood, nevertheless, is very important as it not only imparts tannins and aromas, but also modulates the oxidation of the wine, affecting its structure and longevity. The choice of wood and barrel must therefore be made considering the type of wine, the philosophy of the producer and the desired winemaking objective.

Certifications and Quality Standards

Barrel quality certifications, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification, ensure that the wood used for barrels comes from sustainably managed forests, ensuring ethical practices throughout the supply chain.

Choosing the appropriate barrel is essential to enhance the specific qualities of the wine, and it depends on the winemaking choices and the type of wine. Each wine requires unique considerations in terms of wood type, barrel size, and length of aging to achieve the best possible result. Understanding and carefully selecting barrels allows producers and winemakers to refine their wines and best express the potential of the varietal and terroir.

In conclusion, barrels are not simply containers, but fundamental elements that contribute to the distinctive character of each wine. Their selection, care and maintenance are crucial steps in the production of high-quality wines.

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