Of Barriques and Men

April 16, 2015


Barriques could be a touchy subject in the context of many wines, especially in Piemonte and Toscana.

Images of some of the most outspoken opposers like Beppe Rinaldi (and his “The only good use for barriques” chair) and Bartolo Mascarello (and his beautiful and self explanatory labels) pop up almost instinctively when the topic comes up.

Both Rinaldi and Mascarello are among the winemakers are among those I have a huge respect for and their wines are easily among my favourites. I share their stance on the subject, but I also believe their unapologetically critical tone is (was) a tool to deliver the message about the philosophy and the ideal. Not necessarily to paint the day-to-day life and the character of a winemaker as black or white. The paint and the brush are really in the own hands of each winemaker.

Following an overkill in small wood usage over the course of the ’90s and early ’00s by winemakers all over the world chasing the benevolence of certain critic, barriques eventually became nearly demonised. An action causes an equal and opposite reaction. Makes sense.

However, as it typically is with generalisations, a sweeping notion of “barrique=bad” is inaccurate and quite limiting for those looking for honest wine (as opposed to “pretty stories”).

People who know me, are probably growing very puzzled by know, as I generally am not a fan of barriques. Don’t worry, I’ve not gone mad. I just want to highlight a point that it’s not barriques, per se, that are bad. It’s their inappropriate usage.

To illustrate it, here are just a few ideas to consider:

1) Barriques are actually a part of the traditional way of making wine in many regions. The easiest examples – Bordeaux and Rioja.

2) Certain grapes, arguably, need various degree of small wood contact to perform best.

3) Barriques can be very, very different. Consider a new heavily toasted one versus a 5-7 year-old untoasted one. Clearly they will have a very different impact on wine.

4) Even the ultra-traditional, but small(ish), winemakers in the areas where ageing in large wood is the custom  – often have little choice but to use some barriques or tonneaux. The reason is trivially simple  – their small harvest might yield juice in quantities which fall short of filling all their botti to the top.

They might be left with 300L or 900L of “extra” wine which is too little to go into the 1000L or 2500L large casks to the top. What are they to do? Customising their botte (often bought second-hand) is often out of the question as finances are usually already tight as is.

Quite common options is to use old barriques, as neutral as possible, to age that residual production, which is later blended with the main portion aged in large wood.

The bottom line: Fear not the barrique. Fear the people who use it to mask the wine.

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