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The nobility of oak

Wooden barrels or casks have been used as containers for transporting wine since time immemorial. Pliny the Elder mentions it in his writings, crediting the Celts with inventing them for transporting not only wine but all kinds of merchandise.

With the arrival of the Romans, who used the amphora, the wooden barrel was adopted for the same purposes. As they pursued their conquests, they took it with them to all the wine-producing regions bordering the Mediterranean. In turn these peoples learned the trade and skill of cooperage.

During the 18th century barrels were used as containers for marine transport. This is where the term "tonnage" came from as a loading capacity for ships, referring to the number of "tuns" or barrels that the ship could carry.

tonelero One of our coopers making a barrel head

Until well into the 20th century, a whole range of products such as oil, salted fish, salt, sugar and so on were stored and carried in wooden barrels.  From the 50s-60s onwards, other materials — especially stainless steel — replaced wood, which only survives through its use in maturing wines.

The standard size for a barrel is 225 litres, dictated by its suitability for transport. Latterly this size has been used in Bordeaux where it is considered to be the best because of the ratio of surface area of wine in contact with wood, having a positive effect on the transfer of flavours. This is the so-called "Bordelaise” or /Bordeaux" barrel, while the Burgundy barrel has a capacity of 300 litres.

The Bordeaux barrel has become widespread over time and nowadays in Rioja it is a mandatory size which, together with the ageing time necessary for a wine to be called "Crianza", "Reserva" or "Gran Reserva" when it reaches the market, is controlled by the Rioja Regulating Council.

Of course oak barrels are not just containers to store wine in: they play an active part in the development and maturity of its organoleptic potential. Other woods such as chestnut, elm or cherry have been completely superseded by oak, because of its unsurpassed properties: physical resistance to filtration, elasticity, watertightness, resistance to microbial development (which makes it more hygienic), etc.

Setting aside the many intrinsic features of each component of the wine (variety, alcohol content, acidity, phenolic composition, etc), the barrel does not merely involve contact with the wood. There are many factors that make the wine-wood relationship one of the most complicated selection problems, decisive in the difficult art of developing high-quality wines.

Among the most important factors to bear in mind when selecting barrels are: origin, age, curing or drying of the oak; thickness of staves; shaping the barrel; joining the staves; type of toasting; washing the new barrels; plugging; filling; racking; environmental conditions in the winery, and lifetime of the barrel.

Ageing in oak gives charisma to Rioja wines; granting them great distinction among those from other wine and grape producing areas around the world. In this regard, Rioja has the highest concentration of barrels in the world (939,454  225 litre barrels).  In our bodegas alone we have 15,000 barrels.

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