Dear Wine Wizard,
I am a novice home winemaker and have been contemplating making the move from carboy and bottle-aging to barrel-aging some of my reds. It is my understanding that a new barrel can soak up quite a bit of wine when first placed in use. However, my question is what do you do to prepare for this? Do you set aside residual wine, aging in a carboy, and then use this when topping up? Can you give me some insight?
Wine Wizard replies: Indeed, this is one of the classic challenges faced by home winemakers and the reason recipes for the ubiquitous 5-gallon (19-L) batch aren’t always useful. When making wine for a specified storage volume, i.e. the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy (or in your case, the 50-gallon barrel), it’s always best to make the extra bit for “topping up” as you mention.
The topping wine can be made in a container that fits the proportional size of what you’re doing. In your case I would suggest making an extra 10 gallons (38 L) in addition to the batch you’re going to be making for your barrel. You’ll need to have that extra bit to top up the headspace that’ll occur as the wine settles down from its primary fermentation and loses its carbon dioxide gas. This, by the way, is the main source of the empty space encountered when putting new wine into barrels and has not much to do with the age of the barrel. If you soak up your barrel with a water and metabisulfite overnight and make sure there are no leaks before you fill it, you won’t lose any more wine from your new barrel than from any other. Sure, some wine is absorbed by the wood and some wine (usually alcohol) is proportionally evaporated through the wood over time, but the CO2 loss is much greater. There is a myth that tons of wine is lost as the barrels “breathe,” but over a wine’s life, much more volume is lost during primary and mL fermentation.
For more of the Wine Wizard’s wisdom, check out the latest issue of WineMaker magazine, available now at better winemaking supply retailers and newsstand locations.