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  Corkscrew Issue 18, April 2004   
The CaskThe Cask  Contents 
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The Cask

There are some who dislike it and others who love it: the cask is recently a subject of debates, nevertheless its history is related to the one of wine since many centuries and its positive contribution to enology is undeniable

 The cask, or barrel, the famous wood container used in enology for the aging of wine and frequently for the fermentation of must as well, has tied, in the course of centuries, a solid connection to the beverage of Bacchus and its contribution certainly is useful, sometimes essential. Once casks were used for storing, keeping and transporting many goods, both solid and liquid, whereas now their main use is almost and exclusively related to wines and some distillates. Wine and wood have lived together for many centuries and today, more than ever, or better to say, since some years, the subject have become current, maybe because of the excessive use done with this useful cellaring tool. Among wine lovers there are three “schools of thought”: the ones who dislike even the faintest hints of wood in wine, the ones who are delighted when lots of wood is found in wine and, finally, the ones who prefer to stay in the middle, supporters of the famous Latin saying In Medio Stat Virtus (virtue is in the middle).

 An aspect connected to the cask is however undeniable and it should be made clear from the beginning: in general terms, the contribution of the cask in wine making is certainly useful, in many cases it is fundamental and not only for the aromas and flavors that can be passed to wine: many wines would not be considered as sumptuous and magnificent in case the wine maker would have not used the cask. What it is arguable is the use of the cask in relation to its characteristics and the style of wine. This consideration certainly is relative to the taste and the preferences of everyone, however - it is good to remember - among the fundamental factors determining the class and the quality of a wine there are its balance and the harmony with which the many elements are expressed; therefore the contribution of wood must be balanced according to the other characteristics.

 

The Effects of the Cask on Wine

 The most evident effects of the cask on wine for the consumers of this beverage are perceivable in the aromas and in the taste. Indeed this is only one of the effects derived from the use of cask in the fermentation and in the aging of wine. However it is the influence on the aromatic qualities in a wine which usually is argued by wine lovers. For many the excessive quantity of aromatic elements passed from wood to wine “perverts” its personality, for others this completes the wine or can even exalt it. However this is not the essential point: every one has his or her personal preferences and tastes and on these we are not going to argue, the main aspect which interests us is about the general effects of the cask on the production of wine.


 

 Before talking about the effects of the cask on wine it is necessary to understand the general characteristics of this container. The type of wood used for the construction of the cask, as well as its origin, the volume, the way the wood was processed and the time of aging, are all essential factors which directly influence the quality of the wine that it will be later contain. To those factors is also included the age of the cask, that is the number of times it was used for containing wine, technically called passages. A cask which never contained any wine after its construction is called new or of first passage, its second and subsequent usage will be defined as second passage, therefore third passage and so on.

 In the production of quality wines a cask is rarely used after its third passage because of many factors that influence both the quality of the cask itself and wine. The essential factor which allows the cask to be used profitably is represented by a strict hygienic condition: a dirty cask with unpleasing smells will pass these faults to the wine. Moreover it should be remembered the cask is made of an organic matter - wood - and that will contain an organic substance - wine - made for the most part of water. The wood is a porous substance and easily absorbs the liquids it gets in contact with, and in case of water - which in wine represents about the 87% - it could happen the development and formation of unpleasing molds. Moreover, after every passage wood passes its aromatic and chemical substances to the wine therefore diminishing its contribution in the next passages. By considering the costs for a strict cleaning of casks are not negligible and the diminishing of aromatic and chemical components would influence on the final characteristics of wine, producers usually buy new casks every two or three years.

 The influence of cask on wine also depends by productive and enological choices, including the style and “character” to be obtained. Two main elements - and however not to be considered as the only ones - which influence in a more evident way on the organoleptic qualities of a wine are the size of the cask and the level of toasting of the wood. During the construction of a cask, staves, that is the wood boards making the cask, are processed by the heat produced by a flame burning in the inside to soften the wood in order to bend them and to have it shaped in its typical form. The action of the heat also affects the structure of the wood by “burning” - or better to say, toasting, the side in contact with the flame. The higher the time the wood is processed this way, the higher the toasting will be. The toasted character of the wood will be then passed to the wine therefore giving it more or less accentuated aromas and flavors. The choice of the toasting of a cask is based on enological and productive decisions and according to the style of wine to be produced.


The cask and its elements
The cask and its elements

 The characteristics of the wine contained in a cask are not only affected by toasting. During the aging in cask, wood passes to wine many aromatic substances that will then influence both its taste and aroma. Among them is to be mentioned vanilline, responsible for the most typical aroma found in wines aged in wood: vanilla. Moreover are also passed other aromatic substances, according to the type of wood and how the cask was made, which generally give wine spicy aromas. During this process the wood also passes phenols substances, usually defined as tannins, which will give wine a greater structure and, last but not the least, color. The effects of the cask on the color of wine are more clearly visible in white wines where the straw yellow and golden yellow hues get accentuated. It should be remembered the contribution and the influence of these factors is regulated by the size of the cask, by its toasting, the age of the cask and the time a wine will stay inside it. The greater the size of a cask, the lesser the contact surface to wine volume ratio will be, therefore the lesser the influence of substances passed to the wine will be. On the other hand, the lesser the size of cask, and therefore the lesser the volume of wine, the greater the effects on the organoleptic qualities - aromatic and gustatory - will be. These factors are strictly evaluated by enologists at the time of the making of a wine and represent fundamental choices in case they decide to make use of cask.

 During the stay of wine in cask also happen other important processes that will be both fundamental and essential to the quality. Wood is a porous matter and therefore it allows the passage of oxygen and liquids. Both water and ethyl alcohol pass through the staves of the cask and reach the outside therefore concentrating the wine. This factor is of extreme importance for the evolution and the aging of wine. Water, which has smaller molecules than ethyl alcohol, passes through the wood more easily and more rapidly and it is the first to reach the outside of the cask. In the outside of the cask water evaporates according to the humidity of the room where the casks are stored. In conditions of relatively low humidity, water evaporates more rapidly than alcohol and the result is a concentration of wine's components and the percentage of alcohol slightly increases, more or less of some tenths percent. Things changes in case the casks are stored in rooms having a relatively high humidity. In this case the evaporation of alcohol is according to the quantity of evaporated water, therefore the alcohol percentage could also decrease. The evaporation of water and alcohol are also affected by the thickness of staves, the variations of temperature and the air streams in the cellar.

 The evaporation of water and alcohol favors the concentration of wine, however it also lowers the level inside the cask while leaving a “dangerous” empty space that will be occupied by air, therefore oxygen. For this reason casks are frequently refilled with the same wine in order to have them always full and with no air inside that would be cause of an evident and detrimental oxidization on wine. No matter the casks are periodically refilled in order to eliminate air, oxygen gets however into the cask through the pores of wood. This small quantity of oxygen has very positive effects in the aging and the development of wine and represents one of the main factors responsible for the evolution of wine over the time. Oxygen favors the combination of the many elements constituting the wine while giving it a rounder and smoother character. Oxygen also plays a role every time the bung is removed from cask - that is the big plug placed on the top - during the operation of refilling and decanting.

 

Types and Characteristics of Cask's Wood

 Casks were once made of many types of woods, including chestnut, cherry and acacia, as well as, of course, oak. Among these types of wood the most used one today is oak and, rarely, chestnut. Oak wood is preferred to the others because it is harder and has sweeter and more aromatic phenolic substances - tannins - which better relates to the structure and aromas of wine. Among the hundreds of varieties of oak existing in the world, only three of them are preferably used for the making of casks. The two main varieties are quercus sessilis (oak), quercus robur (oak) and quercus alba (American oak), as well as quercus peduncolata (oak). The main European areas where oak for the making of casks is from are the central part of France and the Balkans. French oak is generally considered the best of the world, however in some Italian wine areas it is preferred Slovenian oak. The best American oak (quercus alba) is mainly from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin, however it is also found in many other states of the eastern coast. Moreover it is also present in California and in Oregon where it is mainly found the quercus gariana variety.

 The wood which is mainly preferred for wine making is the one having a fine grain, a condition which is obtained only thanks to a slow growing rate of the tree and favored by the cool climate areas, such as the one of France. The most wanted oak variety in enology is quercus sessilis because it grows up in groups, has longer and straight trunks and grows up slowly. Quercus robur grows up in a solitary way and prefers places rich in water with the result of a more rapid growth and a coarser grain. Quercus sessilis is also looked for because it is richer in aromatic components than quercus robur of about four times. The oak used for the making of casks is usually called with the name of the forest or the area it comes from, therefore, famous names like Tronçais, Nevers, Allier and Limousin are all names of French forests from which oak is being produced.

 The many types of oak coming from the many areas of the world have proper characteristics that affect the quality of wine. American oak has a pretty fast growth and has a coarser grain than the European one, has a lower quantity of tannins and has sweet aromatic components which usually resemble coconut. This type of oak is usually used in Rioja, Australia and California. French oak belongs to the quercus sessilis species, with the exception of the one from Limousin that belongs to the quercus robur species. Allier oak is very looked for because it has a very fine grain and a good balance between tannins and aromatic components. Argonne oak, today rarely used and with limited quantities of tannins and aromatic components, was once appreciated in the Champagne area before the introduction of steel tanks. Bourgogne oak has a fine grain, a high quantity of tannins and little aromatic components and it is mainly used in the Bourgogne area.

 Limousin oak, the only French oak belonging to the quercus robur species, has a coarser grain, a low content in aromatic components and in the past was used for Chardonnay wines, today its most frequent use is for the aging of brandies, in particular Cognac. Nevers oak, very appreciated and looked for, has a fine grain with a moderate and well balanced content in tannins and aromatic components. Tronçais oak has a very fine grain, a high content in tannins and a moderate content of aromatic components, it is particularly suited for long aging and it is very appreciated and looked for. Vosges oak has a fine grain and a high content in tannins, a low content in aromatic components which resemble spices and it is rather wanted for the excellent balance between tannins and aromatic components. Slovenian oak, pretty common in Italy for the making of large casks, belongs to the quercus robur species, has a fine grain, a moderate content in tannins and a low quantity of aromatic components. Portuguese oak, belonging to the quercus gariana species, is not very common and it is mainly used in Portugal, has an average grain and a good content in aromatic components. Finally, Russian oak, belonging to the quercus sessilis species, has a fine grain and a low quantity of aromatic components and it was very used in the Bordeaux region during the nineteenth century up to the 1930's. No matter in France there are the most important oak forests, today some French producers are using the Russian oak again mainly because of its cheaper cost.

 




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  Corkscrew Issue 18, April 2004   
The CaskThe Cask  Contents 
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