Are new oak barrels toasted and filled with wine before they’re sold?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Are new oak barrels toasted and filled with wine before they’re sold?

—Bert, Kearny, N.J.

Dear Bert,

When a winery orders a new oak barrel, it’s toasted to the winery’s specifications, but it shouldn’t arrive with wine inside it! (Check out our FAQ page on barrels for more details on toasting and barrel construction.)

A new barrel has a very strong aroma—get anywhere near it and you’ll be hit with the smell of cedar, spice or toasted vanilla. A more heavily toasted barrel will have stronger aromas of toasted spice and smoke. Which characteristics the barrel imparts can also depend on the type of oak used—French and American oak are both popular, among others—and the size of the barrel—smaller barrels are more potent than larger barrels due to the increased surface area–to-volume ratio of smaller barrels.

Some winemakers prefer to use new barrels for fermentation or aging because they can impart those strong aromas and flavors to the wine. Each time a barrel is used, that aromatic influence dissipates a bit, and after about three or four uses they are considered “neutral.” Even though neutral barrels won’t contribute those strong aromas, they still give the wine a richer, creamier texture. Some winemakers use a mix of new and neutral oak barrels, or different types and sizes of oak barrels, to achieve the style of wine they’re aiming for.

If you’ve ever been at a winery and saw a shipment of barrels arrive that looked like they were already stained with wine, that’s probably because the winery purchased some used or neutral barrels from a barrel broker, or got them from another winery.

—Dr. Vinny

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