Ask Wine Wizard

Oak Barrel Aging Advice


Larry White — Austin, Texas asks,

I have a medium toast 20-gallon (76-L) American oak barrel and I just put wine in it three weeks ago. How often should I check it to top off, taste, and measure free SO2? Also, how long can I expect to keep the wine in there (this is a brand new barrel)?


Hi Larry, congrats on your new piece of equipment! I’m sure you’ll find it adds to the kinds of wine you can make. Since you just filled your barrel and it’s brand new, you might want to open the bung and check the wine level now, since it’s been three weeks. Sometimes new barrels are slightly dry and, even if you soaked it with hot water before filling, can sometimes “drink” a little of your wine as they saturate over time. Be sure to completely top up the barrel at this time. 

You can certainly check in on the taste as well after three weeks, but it’d maybe be a bit of a waste of wine at this stage, because three weeks isn’t nearly enough to really move the needle on flavor or aroma development. 

adding metabisulfite to wine an oak barrel for aging
Photo courtesy of Dominick Profaci

How long to leave it in the new barrel? Since I don’t know what kind of wine you have or what kind of style you’re shooting for, check out these guidelines, but note that these are for commercial-
sized 59-gal. (225-L) barrels. Smaller barrels have more oak wood exposure per gallon of wine and therefore will gain flavors faster. This means the smaller the barrel the shorter the time spent on oak. 

Contact time for wine — the Wiz’s general guidelines: 

3–6 months: “Light oak” style white wine like a medium-oaked Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. 

6–8 months: Medium-heavy style white wine like a traditional Chardonnay or a lighter-bodied red like a Pinot Noir. 

8–12 months: This would be good for a medium-bodied red wine like a Paso Robles Cabernet, a Sonoma Merlot, or a Rhône-style red. 

14–18 months: This would be considered a heavy approach for something like a big Napa Cabernet or Bordeaux-style red blend. 

In the future you might want to consider experimenting with a mix of new and used barrels, because sometimes 100% new oak on a wine can be overwhelming. The first use of any new barrel is always the most extracted and sometimes that can be a little too harsh, especially for those lighter styles.

For whites and rosés be aware that you may pick up some darker color and, again, this might not be a good match with the kind of wine you’re trying to make. If you’ve got a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling, for instance, both aromatically and color-wise I’d go with a “neutral” barrel or a stainless steel drum even. A “neutral” barrel means that so many batches of wine have been aged in it and passed through over the years that very little if any oak flavor, aroma, or color is left to be extracted into the wine. A used barrel like this (as long as it’s not leaking) is a serviceable container for aging wine and can be beneficial due to the microoxidation that occurs through the wood. Also, if you leave the wine on the lees during aging in the barrel it can add some additional character but won’t contribute any of the new oak aromas and flavors you might expect from a newer barrel. 

In the future you might want to consider experimenting with a mix of new and used barrels, because sometimes 100% new oak on a wine can be overwhelming.

You probably already know this, though not all readers might: Don’t put white wine into a barrel where you’ve aged red wine . . . unless you want to make rosé! If you’ve got a barrel you’re using to age red wine in, it’s pretty tough to clean the barrel enough to be able to subsequently age rosé or white wine in it without affecting that wine’s color. You’d be amazed how far soaked-in the wine gets. I’ve had some success soaking the barrel for a few days with a very strong sodium percarbonate solution (ProxyClean or Proxycarb are two commercial products), rinsing with water, then soaking in a tartaric acid solution for another day. After this treatment the barrel should be safely decolorized . . . and sadly, also stripped of much of the new oak aromas and flavors. Because of this, it’s always best to designate “white barrels” and “red barrels” from the beginning. You can always turn a white barrel into a red one but it’s always harder to go the other way.

Whatever you do, don’t use chlorine bleach on winery equipment of any kind, which can lead to TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) contamination, more familiarly known as the “corked” wine aroma. The swampy-smelling TCA is generated when certain kinds of molds interact with chlorine molecules in their environment. Most often associated with corks (you’ve probably experienced the infamous restaurant cork sniffing tableside), TCA can also infiltrate cellars via cardboard, barrels, sacks of wood chips, and even drains. Because of this, chlorine-containing products of any kind have no place in a winery or cellar. Always use carbon-block filtered water for your cleaning, sanitizing, and winemaking needs if your tap water contains any chlorine additive. 

Winemakers who make wine batches at scale are able to use the new and neutral barrel mixes to their advantage by varying the percentage of each type. You may have heard the term “30% new oak” or “40% new, 60% used” in wine descriptions. What they mean is that in each case, 30% and 40% of the barrels in the batch were new, respectively. Mixing barrel ages is a great way to really dial in a style, and though I know most home winemakers (“microvintners,” I like to say) will never have batches large enough to properly go there, you can still achieve a certain amount of the same effect by aging your wine in a neutral barrel but introducing new wood into the barreled wine in the form of oak chips, beans, sticks, or spirals.

In my Winemaker’s Answer Book (Storey Publishing) I show you how to make an oak chip infusion “sock” by stuffing toasted oak pieces into a nylon stocking, tying it up and leaving it with a string on the outside of the bung. This way you’d still be able to introduce some new oak character into your wine while being able to take advantage of the lees-stirring and aging dynamics of a neutral barrel. Added bonus? Once the wine’s oaky enough you can simply remove the oak sock . . . so no over-oaked wine! 

All in all, if well taken care of, your barrel should last you for 10–15 years or so and, if you’re lucky and it’s well-made with no leaks, it could potentially serve you for much longer. I wish you well on your new-barrel journey! 

Response by Alison Crowe.