When it comes to wine barrels, size matters

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A farmworker carries a box of Runner Duck wine past barrels at the Vergenoegd wine estate near Cape Town, South Africa, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

BUZZ: I was talking with the wine specialist at the State Store and he told me that better wines are aged in smaller barrels. Is that true?

Marnie: Yes and no, Buzz. It's true that smaller barrels (50 to 60 gallons) are the most common. They're prized by winemakers because there is more surface contact between the wine and the oak, allowing the wine to breathe through the porous wood and extract more toasted oak flavors if the barrel is new. But, it's not true that smaller is always better.

Buzz: Geez, I always thought that bigger was better.

Marnie: Smaller is better for styles like Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, where the taste of oak is desirable. But bigger can be better for other styles. Some of the world's finest wines from Italy and Germany are aged in massive casks that hold hundreds or thousands of gallons.

Buzz: Those barrels sound as big as trailer trucks.

Marnie: They're not on wheels. These are used for wines that benefit from a porous wooden vessel but don't require new-oak flavor. Examples are Italian reds like barolo and Chianti, German whites like Riesling and gewürztraminer, and Alsatian wines. The world's biggest barrel is the Heidelberg Tun, which holds 58,000 gallons and required the felling of 138 trees to build.

Buzz: Holy moley, that's a barrel that sounds as big as a blimp! But why wouldn't those monsters made from all those trees add more wood flavor?

Marnie: First, a smaller percentage of wine touches the wood in a huge cask. Second, only new wood adds oak flavor. Massive casks are permanent cellar installations, used for decades or even centuries. By the fourth or fifth year, they will have lost any oak flavor. They allow the wine to breathe, let liquid escape through evaporation and air to seep in, a very slow process that concentrates and mellows the wine.

Many Italian and German vintners are switching to more modern methods. In Tuscany and Piedmont, a growing number of wineries use the smaller standard barrels now, and most German whites are aged in stainless steel tanks, not huge wood casks.

Buzz: I'm old enough that Germans in big tanks make me nervous, but they serve some great wine, so I'll try to calm down.

Marnie Old is a local sommelier and wine author. Check her out at MarnieOld.com. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Gar Joseph.