Ask Wine Wizard

Varnish on Mini Barrels


Pete Gabriel — Mullica Hill, New Jersey asks,

I received a 10-L (2.75 gallon) oak barrel as a gift. The exterior of this barrel is finished with a light varnish. I am concerned that the varnish will interfere with the oxygen permeability of the barrel, negating any microoxygenation benefits of barrel aging. But, considering I’m dealing with a very small size, I know I won’t be leaving the wine in for very long. So perhaps it is not a concern? I would appreciate any advice you might have. I’ve read your article on small-batch barrels but couldn’t find any mention of varnish.

Well, I suppose you could sand the varnish off if you didn’t like it very much . . . but, realistically, I don’t think it’ll affect the wine that much. If you’ve read some of my pieces on smaller barrels you know that the smaller the vessel the higher the ratio of air exposure to wine volume anyway, which I wager would make up for loss of porosity. You’ll probably get quite a bit of oxygen ingress around the bung as well as every time you open it to adjust free SO2 (something you should be checking on monthly). A word to the wise, however: Sometimes smaller barrels carry their own problems, like they’re just “for show” to keep on top of your bar, or have been sitting around in a warehouse for far too long so they’re all dried out. Even if it was given to you as a gift, see if you can find out more about where the barrel came from, what kind of wood it’s made from, and how long the store carried it before they
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Response by Alison Crowe.