The party's over? Where'd the barrels go?
Generally speaking, oak barrels are used for 5~7 years and then decomissioned. Most wineries infuse their inventory with a certain percentage of new oak barrels every year to keep the 'house style' oak signature. Those percentages vary widely and depend upon the winemaker, market demands, grape varietal, etc.
Those old barrels are sold off to various companies which then convert them into the same half-barrel planters you might see at your local Longs Drug Store, Lowe's, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart Store (see Barrels Unlimited).
There's even a company in Napa which slices & dices the barrels into chips & pieces for use on your home grill. Some of the chips are further soaked in wine to give them even more aroma when they're heated up, aroma which is imparted to the food along with the oak smoke & aromas.
I say further soaked, or more accurately re-soaked, because up to 1 gallon of wine from when the barrel was being used would have permeated the wood and been "stuck" in the barrel...this is yet another reason the prices for wines which have been oak aged are higher.
(Some notable reasons as to why this is the case:
- the cost of the barrel must be passed on,
- there are losses due to evaporation which drive your costs up,
- there is some wine which is absorbed into the wood and cannot be recovered,
- more labor is involved keeping the barrels clean than would be involved with just using a stainless steel tank
- more labor is involved in moving barrels around and the supporting racks, bungs, and other equipment needed [like forklifts, propane & batteries for them], etc.)
(I'll save the discussions of various cooperage houses, oak source (French vs. American), stave aging, etc, for another post as that's just too long for this space...and those topics deserve attention in their own right.)
So how do you know if your wine has been in barrels? If you're not familiar with the producer, you might look for the term "Barrel Fermented" or "Barrel Aged" on the labels - though there are some who don't advertise that. If you're seeing a wine for $7 or under, chances are that it's probably seen alternative oak treatments where oak is used, as barrels will add more to the cost of the bottle. And that's NOT to say that all wines which cost more spend time in oak barrels, but as a generality it holds fairly true.
My favorite use for old barrels is in the fireplace or grill. Plus living in the wine country, the costs I see per barrel (used from various wineries direct) are much lower than you might see in other parts of the country.
Time to curl up with a nice Tawny Port!