The use of barriques in red wine maturation – Ian Hickinbotham

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky

Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky

Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham
Red wine barrels - Auscellardoor

 

Only 30 years ago, there were no ‘barriques’ in Australia.

A barrique is a small barrel, usually associated with the making of claret, the province of the classic Bordeaux region of France. Historically, it holds 225 litres of wine.

However, that last point is modified by a much-told (if unbelievable) old story. It seems the coopers who made the barrels were allowed to keep the excess wine in their barriques above the 225 litre amount – maybe it was a reverse incentive for coopers to make bigger barriques from available timber.

Even when legendary Max Schubert copied Bordeaux techniques for the making of his first Grange Hermitage (as it was named in 1951), he used 300 litre barrels that glorify in the name of ‘hogsheads’. (Historically, in Europe, hogsheads were supposed to hold 239 litres).

Importantly, barriques are expected to be made from the best quality French oak, as their role is really the maturing of dry red wines. Their value in this regard, is as new oak and there is even debate as to whether they should be washed at all before use. (Given that considerable heat – in the form of bare flame – is applied during the bending of the staves that make a barrel, it can be argued that new barriques are ‘clean enough’, while with wine, we have alcohol on our side.)

From the oak of new barriques, tannin-like components (the puckering ‘furriness’ we taste in dry red wines) are taken up by dry reds and they contribute much to the final flavour of the wines. On that score, it can be adversely argued that unnatural additives, as such, are added to the wines: indeed that used to be an argument often expressed by Australian winemakers 30 plus years ago, with the common belief – why should we just copy French practice?

Historically, barriques are supposed to allow wines to breathe, considered a desirable aspect of their maturation. The amount of air is infinitesimal, but critical, according to some experts: five parts of oxygen (from that air) per annum is the language used.

However, I saw an example of a barrique that really questions that fond belief.

In New Zealand, oenologist and Master of Wine, Michael Brajkovich, showed me a barrrique, the head-boards of which were concave. He explained that they had moved to that shape after the contained wine had been in the barrique for several months. The oenological explanation was that the wine had used all the available air in the barrique (there is always some, though minute, that goes in with the wine when such a container is filled), thereby creating a vacuum.

To explain, sometimes when opening a very old bottle of wine, if you pause when the cork is 70 percent out of the bottle, the cork creeps back into the bottle ever so slightly – because there is a vacuum within it due to the wine using the minute amount of air under the cork during many years of ageing.

Importantly, this Kumei River barrique was sealed with one of the new type white silicone bungs, rather than the conventional wooden bung wrapped in calico. It acted as a complete seal.

The experience led to the thinking – the oak of a barrique does not allow wine to breathe, but the type of conventional old bung wrapped in calico – did.

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

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