What Is a Barrique—and Why Does It Matter? | Wine Enthusiast
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What Is a Barrique—and Why Does It Matter?

It may not get as much attention as grapes or terroir, but barrel type plays an essential role in winemaking. The barrel material is hugely important, as oak and steel barrels impart vastly different textures and aromas. So, too, is the size and shape of a barrel. The most common barrel style in winemaking? A barrique, a small traditional oak barrel that originated in Bordeaux, France. 

“Adding wine to barriques after pressing, fermentation and clarification impacts aromatics, richness and pure varietal expression as it ages,” says Kyle South, the lead sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Addison in San Diego. 

While “barrique” is the French word for barrel, in winemaking the term usually refers to a particular shape and size. It is relatively tall with thinner staves than most other barrels. Wine labels may tout terms like “aged in barrique” or “barrique-aged.” 

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That said, outside France, the word “barrique” is often used to describe all manner of wooden barrels. “In Germany and Italy, for example, the word has been closely and emotively associated with those who employ barrel maturation in small, new oak rather than traditional cask aging in botti, large, old wooden casks,” reveals The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Beyond its mechanical benefits, the original Bordeaux barrique’s ubiquity can be attributed to its storied track record. “It originated in Bordeaux, so it carries prestige,” says Gabriella Borg Costanzi, wine and service director at Le Crocodile in New York. “And therefore has a long history of success.”

What Is a Barrique Used For? 

Traditionally, a barrique holds 225 liters of wine, making it relatively smaller than many other barrels and casks used for wine aging and maturation. This holds significance for a wine’s flavor and texture: The smaller the barrel, the more the wine interacts with the surface area of the barrel, thus producing a greater oak influence

A barrique’s porousness can translate to a gentle micro-oxygenation. “Barriques allow for oxygen ingress so the wine develops ‘tertiary’ aromas and flavors, like honey, caramel, dried fruits (whites), raisins, earth, mushroom and leather [in reds],” says Borg Costanzi. “This also helps soften tannins.” A barrique also imparts “oak tannins,” particularly if it’s made of new oak. Tannins, a group of bitter, mouth-coating compounds found in many plants, give a wine its structure. 

The impact of micro-oxygenation cannot be understated. “Gentle and constant oxygen exposure makes for good stability in the finished wine,” explains Borg Costanzi. “It can also help stabilize color.”

What Is a Barrique Made Out of?

Barriques are traditionally made of oak, but the variety therein is expansive. “The types of oak barriques can range from Canadian oak in Niagara wine country [to] Hungarian oak, French oak and American oak,” says South. “All have differences.” 

Just like aging duration and barrel size, oak type “will impact the softness or elegance of the wine,” says South. “For example, coconut and dill aromatics may become present in American oak or classic examples of Rioja.”

Which Wines Are Aged in Barriques? 

A wide variety of wines are finished and softened in barriques, but you’re more likely to see some than others. Will Taylor, sommelier at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York, notes that you’ll often see Bordeaux and styles of wine influenced by Bordeaux aged in barriques.

“For the relatively high tannin compounds in classic Bordeaux varieties, new and used wood barriques augment the aromatics in the wine and simultaneously help tame the tannins, which all can ultimately give the resulting wines more complexity and help them age gracefully once they are bottled,” he says.

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South, who helps oversee the Addison’s 10,000-bottle cellar, cites Chardonnay in Chablis as an example of the impact of barrique-aging. “The Grand Cru Les Clos by William Fevre has been aged in oak, adding a depth of richness, where village examples or Premier Crus highlight no aging in barriques classically,” he says. “Pinot Noir in Burgundy is another great example where one could see a barrique used to soften, but not drastically change the varietal, so it still shows a pure expression of Pinot Noir.” 

You’ll also find grappas aged in barriques, called “grappa barrique” or “barricata.” By law, the Italian spirit must be aged in barrels (of any size) for at least 12 months in order to call itself “aged.” Tequilas, whiskeys, rums, gins and many other types of liquors can also be matured in barriques. 

What Does “Barrique” Mean on a Wine Bottle?

If you see “aged in barrique” or “barrique-aged” on a label, there are certain things you can expect.  

“If you see barrique on a bottle, expect that a winemaker wants elegance, complexity, a touch of weight on the palate,” says South. “I think of hand-crafted compared to wild.”

Often, the term “barrique” is associated with new oak. “As ‘new wood’ became more of a desired flavor than the actual aging technique of barrel-aging, this became associated with the use of the term ‘barrique’—so not just aging in the vessel, but aging in a new wood vessel for specific oak flavors,” says Taylor. “In the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, you could say it was all the rage. Everyone from Barolo to California was using barrique to up their flavors and ultimately appeal to critics and consumers alike.”

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