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

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

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

Ask Dr. Vinny Winemaking Techniques Explained

More In Dr. Vinny

Short-term, is it OK to store wine at room temperature?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, offers tips on how to keep wine at its …

May 10, 2021

Can I ask a restaurant to store my own bottle of wine there for a few weeks before I come in to drink it?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers advice for corkage and BYOB etiquette.

May 3, 2021

How long does it take a new vineyard to yield grapes?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how long it takes a grapevine to produce …

Apr 26, 2021

Which wines are “clean”? What does that even mean?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains that there are no "unclean" wines, and the term …

Apr 19, 2021

How many gallons of wine are in a ton of grapes?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how many barrels, gallons, cases and bottles of …

Apr 12, 2021

Does wine age the same under synthetic and natural corks?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the pros and cons of a variety of wine closures, …

Apr 5, 2021