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Aging in wood has always been a fundamental phase in the creation of great wines. Until a few years ago it wasn’t unusual to hear expert wine tasters appreciate its marked presence (“good… You can taste the wood barrel…”): today, wood has once again returned to recite its supporting role.

Aging in wood has always been a fundamental phase in smoothing, exalting, and rendering complex that which the vintner obtained from his own vineyard and from the fermentation process controlled in his own wine cellar. In Tuscany it was and still is tradition to age red wine in large oak or chestnut barrels.

These had a delicate effect on the wines which, prevalently with a Sangiovese base and a percentage of white grapes, didn’t appear excessively structured.

With the change of taste in the market in the mid 1980’s, when more concentrated wines gradually surfaced, we began to favor aging in smaller wooden barrels (barriques from 225 to 228 liters, tonneau of 500 liters) which had a more marked effect on wine both for the larger rapport between surface/volume as well as the toasting process used during their construction.

In many cases, like those more well known in the Chianti zones, the results were excellent and assured many wines to reach a well-deserved international fame. Many producers, however, in the 1990’s, tried to skip over this usage (Supertuscans) without finding benefits in barrel aging, but allowing the wood to overcome the aroma and taste of the wine.

Opposite to the conservation in steel or cement tanks, aging in wood enriches the aromatic and structural characteristics of the wine, especially in the case of barriques or barrels: a vast gamma of toasted and spices/aromas make the wine more complex during aging and there will be an increment in tannins thanks to the passing of such from the wood to the wine.

There is the risk however of the organic profile of the wine not reaching sufficient potency. This effect varies from the origin of the wood (France, Slavonia, or rarely from Missouri), from the toasting of the wood during its construction, from the seasoning of the wood and from the time of contact between the wine and wood.

Another important effect is tied to micro-oxygenation: oxygen passes through the pores of the wood and will tie the wine’s components in more stable structures (tannins, aromas, etc.) Obviously the dosage depends on the quality of the wood, on the type of staves used during the container’s construction, on how much the wine vessel has been used: the quantity of oxygen that penetrates the wood varies from 1 to 10 milligrams per liter per month, an ample differentiation that has variable effects on the evolution of the wine.

The most critical aspect involves the micro biological: the longer the wood is used for aging, the higher the risk of bacterial pollution, especially from yeast like “Brettanomyces.” Meticulous  hygiene, fundamental in any cellar activity, is even more fundamental when wines are aged in wood, difficult to sanitize.

To avoid negative aromas that can cause acidity or a barn or horse odor which can pollute the wine, the cellar hand has to be obsessive in maintaining cleanliness . We can not ignore the high costs of wood aging as compared to steel or cement tank aging.

More producers are seeking other solutions, although with diverse final results, which drastically cut the aging costs: chips and staves. In steel tanks where the wine must ferment or the finished wine is aged, wooden chips or staves are immersed in porous bags with the desired characteristics of leaving tannins and aromas in the wine in an effort to emulate aging in wood.

This practice, born in California, is now legal for IGT Tuscan wines but not for DOC and DOCG wines.

Dario Parenti