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Barrel Aging Wine

Aging Wines: Synopsis

Why age wines, and what is the benefit? That’s a question we hear from both winemakers and winery clients, as well as wine purchasing customers.  The idea of aging wines in barrel and bottle is not new. We have chosen to age our wines for as long as it takes to reach the sophistication level of certain wines made in Europe. Note that we did not say “Wines like those made in Europe”. De Angelis Wines are made in California, and reflect the California terroir, and California wine making practices. That does not mean that we do not and cannot learn from centuries of winemaking in places like France, and apply those lessons to our California versions of what are often the same varietals.

Barrel Aging – Red Wines

Most wine drinkers know that red wines are aged in barrels or tank for varying lengths of time.  During aging, the one major change in red wines is phenolic oxidation, followed by polymerization of anthocyanins (the color molecules) with other flavonoids. Basically, without making this a chemistry lesson, the aging process in barrel stabilizes color, flavors and aroma of red wines, and controls the oxidation/reduction issues that happen in wines. All of this in turn protects wines against further, oxidation or reduction. While it is very important to understand what both oxidation and/or reduction can do to wine, we will not directly address oxidation and reduction in detail.  A few things to consider in this regard are:

  • The container type in which a wine ages effects the oxidation/reduction potentials of a wine, i.e. barrel, tank, keg, tote, etc.
  • Oxygen reacts with phenolics, aldehydes, sugars, Sulfur Dioxide, and other entities.
  • Dissolved oxygen produces peroxides by chemically reacting with copper and iron molecules. Peroxides are more powerful oxidation agents than molecular oxygen.
  • Peroxides are much more powerful oxidation agents than molecular oxygen.
  • Maintaining low oxygen levels in wine is important. However, having no molecular oxygen in solution can be problematic as reduction processes may then control the wine as it ages.

We usually age our red wines in barrels for about 18-24 months. (White wines for much less – 4 to 6 months – if these wines are placed in barrels at all.) Barrel aging is often referred to as bulk aging. Once barrel aging is complete, and the wines are bottled, aging of the wine takes a different path. [See Below]   That path is largely determined by the almost complete lack of dissolved oxygen in the bottle – if the bottling was done well. A Glass bottle can basically be hermetically sealed. Once the bottle is corked, the wine is relatively safe from oxidation. Not insignificant is the fact that when a winery makes a decision to barrel age wines, that winery is making a commitment to chaperoning those wines through a very important part of that wine’s journey from bulk wine to bottled wine. Wine in barrel is not simply left to “age” on its own. Throughout the entire barrel aging process the winemaker must top the wines so that little or no air space exists between the level of the wine, and the bung in the barrel. When to top is a subject that has been independently investigated a number of times. Some winemakers top as often as every two weeks, while other winemakers top only every month or two. Tightly bunged barrels that develop a vacuum may not need to be topped as often. That practice is not devoid of disagreement between winemakers.

In addition to topping barrels, the wines must be protected from microbial and other contamination. More often than not that is done by the judicious addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2) to the wine. This is best done, in our opinion, by knowing the wine pH, and then adding sulfur dioxide accordingly.  This is very important as the effectiveness and survival of SO2 – in its various forms in solution – is pH dependent. High pH values – Low acidity – are much more problematic in this regard than wines in which the pH ranges from 3.4 to 3.7.

While we cannot do a complete exploration of the major components of wine – Phenols, and their progeny Anthocyanins, as well as their polymerized derivatives – Tannins in this presentation, we can note some of the most important activities as one ages his or her wines.  Phenolics, i.e. Anthocyanins and tannins are extracted from grapes as they are processed and manipulated. Seed tannins as well as skin tannins each play a role in the early as well later stages of wine’s making. Both are involved in numerous reactions and transformations that are dependent on external conditions (O2 and SO2) , and in that process produce even more compounds by degradation, modification, stabilization of color, polymerization of tannins and condensation of other compounds.  Many of these “other” compounds are known, but not all. One aspect of wine making that is pretty well understood is the changes that occur in, and because of, tannins, as wines age.  As tannins undergo transformations their impact on wine color and wine aroma combined with their tendency to soften astringency play pivotal roles.

A counter intuitive aspect of tannins is the fact that color intensity in red wines is increased with aeration. This is especially true of young red wines.  A caveat about aerating wine: The wines, prior to being aerated, must be protected against oxidation and subsequent degradation. That is done by judicious addition of sulfur dioxide to the wine

There are other activities, such as tasting the wines, performing lab analyses, etc., that need to be carried out while barrel aging wines. What is relevant is that once a winery decides to barrel age wines, it is not a decision made lightly from both winemaking and budgetary perspectives.

Bottle Aging – Red and White Wines

Once it has been determined that barrel aging is complete, the wines must then be bottled. The first period after bottling – about a month or two – is a time when the wine undergoes a series of chemical reactions that result in what is commonly called “bottle shock”.  Acetaldehyde forms, and phenols oxidize, mainly due to the small amount of oxygen that is in the neck space of the bottle, or is dissolved in the wine.  Addition of the proper amount of sulfur dioxide remedies this as SO2 binds with acetaldehyde, and assists the wine to recover.  Once the wine is over bottle shock, further aging begins in earnest. To accomplish this properly, the bottled wine must be stored in a cool environment.  During bottle aging a number of things might happen. Below are a few:

  • Reduction of Sulfur Dioxide in the first months
  • Reduction in fruitiness and varietal aroma
  • Development of an “aged wine” bouquet
  • A softening of tannin astringency in red wine
  • A gradual decrease in color intensity in red wines

As you may imagine, quite a bit of art is involved with this aspect of aging the wines. For instance, when has bottle aging gone on too long? What is the bouquet at any given time? Are the tannins now refined enough to release the wine? The protocol that we use to make these determinations is simple – we periodically taste a bottle, and make a judgment of its progress. We do this about every month or two, more often as we get closer to release of a wine to the public. Our intent is to be sure that the wines are ready to drink once a client purchases them. Alternatively – depending on the variety and client preferences – the wines may be aged another 3-5 years.

Clients and customers ask when we are going to release “new” wines. Actually, once our wines are released they are NEW wines. That is hard for some to comprehend.  Let’s do a mini-timeline and use a wine made in 2012 as an example: The wine is made in 2012. It is aged – barrel and bottle – for 30 months, then newly released to the public. Thus, the 2012 wine is released in 2015. This wine has been aged to as close to perfection as possible. It’s ready now, it is ready to drink, and it is “NEW”. Actually it would probably be as good or better in 2018, when it is older.

So, as in the example, when you see a newly released wine, remember that it may already be two to three years old, or older, when it becomes available to you. Actually it is still young!  It may have a few tartrate crystals precipitated on the cork, or at the base of the bottle, but that is simply a sign of a well-aged wine.

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De Angelis Wines, February 2018

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