How to Care for an Oak Barrel

How to Care for an Oak BarrelWelcome to the amazing world of Barrel ownership! With your wooden friend you are entering a new and exciting level of wine making. With due diligence and proper up keep of your barrel it will serve you in your wine making for years to come.

First let’s get to know your barrel with a little anatomy lesson:

New barrel care:

The first thing to do when you get your barrel is to check for damage or defects. Make sure there are no cracked or dislocated Staves, ensure the Chime and Croze are intact and that there are no large gaps, If the barrel is excessively dry make sure the Hoops are in their proper location before proceeding to the next step.

Rehydrating your barrel:

Depending on how long it has been since the barrel was made it will be dry and will need to be swollen with water to ensure a liquid tight seal. There are two ways to do this, start with the first method and continue on with the second method (if necessary).

The French Method (Hot Water):

Start with hot chlorine free water. Warning: if you do not have a filter on your tap water and you are on a municipal water system you have chlorine in your water. If you set out the needed volume of water over night it should dissipate, or use store bought water. Fill the barrel to 20% of its volume with hot water, insert a solid bung, and give it a thorough shaking. There will be some spraying from between the Staves, this should subside quickly depending on how dry your barrel is.

Once the leaking from the Stave Joints has slowed down turn the barrel on it’s Head. Fill the outside of the Head that is facing up with hot water. Wait 20 minutes and turn the barrel over, fill the other Head with hot water and wait 20 minutes. At this point, if the barrel wasn’t overly dry, it should be water tight. To test this fill the barrel all the way up and watch for leaks. If there are any leaks leave it full of water for up to 24 hours (this is the second method). If your barrel still leaks after the 24 hour soak, empty and refill with fresh water and soak for 12 more hours. If it still leaks after 36 hours there is probably a structural flaw and you should not put wine in it (this happens in a very small percentage of barrels, contact the store if you experience this issue).

If your barrel is sealed it is ready for wine.

Your new barrel is ready for wine!

Since the barrel was recently sanitized by fire during toasting, there is no need for chemical sanitation with new barrels. Simply rack wine into the barrel. Check the fill level often and top off as needed. Smaller barrels will need to be topped off more often. Make sure to maintain an adequate level of sulfur dioxide in the wine once malo-lactic fermentation is complete.

If there is an active Malo-Lactic Fermentation, use a vented bung or airlock until all CO2 production has stopped.

Refilling your barrel with wine right away after racking wine out is the best way to store your barrel. After racking the aged wine out, simply rinse the sediment out with fresh chlorine-free water and rack new wine into it.

Care and upkeep of your barrel:

The best way to keep your barrel hydrated and sanitary is to keep it full of wine. That may not be possible some years and so you will need to employ a few tactics to ensure the longevity of your barrel.

Dry storage 1-2 months

Clean, rinse, and drain the barrel. Burn a ¼" long piece of sulfur stick in the barrel stoppered with a solid bung. Wrap only the Bilge area in plastic wrap to maintain moisture in the body of the barrel. Do not wrap the Heads of the barrel as this will prevent it from breathing and will encourage mold growth (put a piece of wire through the piece of sulfur stick and suspend it through the Bung Hole and hold in place with the bung). Do not allow burning sulfur to touch wood.

Dry storage 3-9 months

This length of time should be avoided but if it can not be, start with the first storage step. Then every 2 months unwrap the barrel, rinse with fresh chlorine-free water, and fill with water for a few hours to seal any leaks that have developed, and drain. Repeat steps from above (Dry storage 1-2 months).

Longer than 9 months

Fill the barrel with a holding solution of citric acid and potassium metabisulfite (KMS) at a rate of 4g citric acid 8g KMS per gallon of barrel volume. Store the barrel as if it has wine in it and top off every few weeks. This method will leach oak flavor from the wood over time and should be used as a last resort.

Removal of tartrate crystal build up:

Make a solution of Soda Ash and fresh chlorine-free water, 2 oz. of Soda Ash to 3 gallons of water. Make enough solution to fill the barrel 1/4-1/3 full. If the barrel is small enough to lift and shake, splash the solution around for a few minutes. If it is a larger barrel turn the barrel from the “10 o’clock” position to the “2 o’clock” position every 10-15 minutes for a total of 15 minutes on each side. Drain, rinse and flush with a solution of citric acid and water at a rate of 1 oz. citric acid to 1 gallon of fresh chlorine-free water. This solution will neutralize the Soda Ash. Rinse with fresh chlorine-free water, drain and fill with wine.

Barrel age

If the barrel is new or younger it will take less time to reach a particular oak level, if it’s older then it will take longer. The flavor compounds leach out of the wood at different rates so the character it imparts will change over time, giving the barrel a “sweet spot” in its age.

Barrel size

This is all about surface area to volume ratios. With a larger barrel, 30-60 gallons, there is much less surface area in contact with the total volume of wine which will slow the extraction and evaporation rates. With a smaller barrel, 5-15 gallons, the higher level of contact with the wine speeds up the process.

General barrel info:

  • Don’t reuse a barrel in which wine has turned to vinegar; it’s impossible to get rid of the vinegar bacteria from the wood. Use the barrel as a planter in your yard.
  • It’s generally not a good idea to mix wine types in a barrel, or white and red wine. You will taste the previous wine in the subsequent wine.
  • Barrels need regular topping off with wine to keep them full. Since a barrel is porous, wine evaporates through the wood. Once a week for topping off works fine; some wineries top off twice a week. Keeping the humidity up in your winery cuts the loss of evaporation. Losing half a liter a month is normal.
  • The stave with the hole in it (“bung stave”) often cracks just at the hole as this is the weakest part of the barrel. Either replace the stave or seal the crack with melted bee's wax.
  • Wipe the area around the bung hole often with a sulfite solution. This is the area that gets seepage and spills, and the sulfite keeps this area from being a source of spoilage.
  • Five-gallon barrels have a high surface to volume ratio. The wine can get too oaky relatively quickly. When using a five-gallon barrel, keep the wine in for a shorter period of time, then blend it with wine from the same vintage that was not in the barrel; the key is to not let it sit too long.

    Read more about Aging Wine with Oak