Tag Archives: barrel


The wines of Rioja are a particular favourite of mine. The best wines show what the Tempranillo grape variety can achieve. Some wines are made to drink soon after they are made, and others just last for decades.

Rioja vineyards

Vineyards and mountains of Rioja

The Rioja region has a beautiful setting in central northern Spain. It is sheltered from the north, south and west by mountain ranges. The river Ebro, which is at the heart of Rioja, drains East into the Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic which is much closer.

  • Soils near the river are alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and limestone.
  • Elsewhere, soils are a mixture of iron-rich clay, limestone and sandstone.
  • Geological activity over the years has turned this into a complex mix of soils, which can vary over short distances.

The mountains surrounding the Rioja region protect it from weather extremes. But it is influenced by three weather regimes.

  • Atlantic – mainly cool and wet.
  • Continental – searing hot in the Summer, and very cold in the Winter.
  • Mediterranean – a warmer influence from the East.

During the growing season, the weather is often hot and dry during the day, and much cooler at night. Ideal for growing grapes.

Rioja Wine Regions
There are three designated regions:-

  • Rioja Alta and Alavese to the West. The vineyards are at higher altitude and cooler than those to the East. The climate and soil are particularly suitable for high quality Tempranillo grapes.
  • Rioja Baja to the East. It is warmer and drier than it is to the West, and the conditions suit the Garnacha grape variety.

Wine classification
Rioja was the first wine region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status, the highest level in Spain. Within this there are four classifications based on the amount of barrel and bottle age that a wine has been given. However, this is only part of the story, as there can be a large variation in quality and price between wines within a given category.

  • Joven, or ‘young’ wines. These have no wood ageing, and are not for keeping.
  • Crianza – not released before their third year, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
  • Reserva – minimum of three years total ageing, of which at least 1 year is in barrel.
  • Gran Reserva – minimum of 2 years in barrel, and 3 years in bottle. Most producers will only make these wines in top years, when prime quality grapes are grown.

There are slightly different rules for white wine, but very few bodegas make wood-aged white Rioja any more.

New styles of wine
Red – some producers are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest by not using the above designations. They make a more powerful style of wine.
White – the old style of oaked white wines is a minority interest, even though the best are excellent. The new style is crisp and dry, and fairly aromatic. Made for the international market.

Rioja makes many really good wines, and apart from a few cult wines represents excellent value for money.

Why use Wood in Wine Production?

wine barrels

Wine barrels in a Burgundy cellar

Fermenting and maturing a well-made wine in oak barrels softens the wine, and makes it more complex.

Four things happen when a wine sits in an oak barrel:-

  • Chemicals are leached out of the wood, which provides the distinctive vanilla taste, amongst others.
  • Small amounts of air pass through the barrels, which influences the way the wine matures.
  • Some wine is absorbed into the barrel, and some alcohol evaporates. So the wine in the barrel needs to be topped up.
  • The wine is gently clarified.

Types of oak and their treatment
Several different types of oak are used, and each gives a different taste. The oak is split into strips, known as ‘staves’, and allowed to dry outside. This seasoning removes the harsher tannins in the wood. The barrels can be further treated by burning the inside, a process known as toasting, which also reduces the flavour and tannins which are imparted to the wine. This video by Jordan Winery tells you all you need to know.

New barrels vs old
Old barrels, which have been used before, will impart less taste than new barrels, as most of the chemicals have already been leached out.

Large barrels vs small
Large barrels impart less taste than small ones, because the flavour is diluted over a larger volume. Also, the air that penetrates the barrels is spread more thinly in large barrels, which leads to slower ageing.

Oak chips
Some winemakers put oak chips into their wine while it is maturing, to give it ‘oak character’. This is obviously cheaper than using oak barrels, and is used on cheaper wine, sometimes with unfortunate results.

Where it can go wrong
The use of oak in winemaking is a complicated business, and a great deal of skill is required in dealing with it. Several factors are listed above, but there are more besides. Most importantly, the wine needs to be tasted during its evolution. Not all wines improve with exposure to oak, and it is easily overdone.