You’ve probably heard the popular expression ‘Like fine wine, I get better with age’. This common saying derives from one of the most important steps in making quality wines: ageing.
Once the harvest months are over, attention in the winery shifts to the ageing process. Most wine-producing countries age their wines in oak barrels, because the material is known to impart a wealth of aromas, flavours, and different textures.
Wood is among the most sustainable raw materials on the planet. In broad terms, it not only protects the atmosphere by sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) but also the watersheds responsible for 75% of the world’s freshwater. Furthermore, it is the most important single source of renewable energy. In countries like France, wood in its various forms (logs, wood pellets, wood chips) represents 47% of the renewable energy used.
Oak barrels are made from trees of the genus Quercus. As these oak species grow, it becomes necessary to fell some of the trees to keep forests healthy and ensure their longevity. This calls for sustainable forest management so that we can reap the benefits that woodlands have to offer without harming their overall health and habitat.
In 1713, Carl von Carlowitz first introduced the concept of ‘sustainable forestry’ in his silvicultural treatise Sylvicultura Oeconomica, which described a ‘continuous, gradual, and sustainable use’ of the forest.
Today the most important international certification schemes for sustainable forest management are the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Both organizations champion the crucial role of forests in the environmental, social, and economic spheres.
According to the Sustainable Development Goal 15 of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, the use of wood provides benefits that enhance the value of forests. Investing in forests means investing in people and their livelihood. This is especially true in poor rural areas, and for young people and women.
Are there alternatives that make barrels more sustainable?
According to the University of La Rioja (Flor et al., 2017), the production of barrels requires wood treatments that consume a significant amount of energy. At the winery, the process of cleaning and preparing the barrels uses large quantities of water (up to 113 litres for a 225-litre barrel).
This presents the sector with an opportunity to work together on finding alternatives that reduce the consumption of natural resources. The options include using high-frequency microwaves (automatic barrel cleaning systems with cleanwood technology) and implementing measures to improve energy efficiency.
Over the past five years, we have seen a rise in the number of wineries that seek out cooperages which integrate sustainable initiatives in their production process. This is exemplified by companies that go beyond PEFC certification and make waste reduction a priority. Mark Evich, Regional Sales Manager for Nadalié USA, explains that the company uses more than 96% of the trees it purchases to produce its barrel lines and complementary oak products. The wood that isn’t used in the production process finds its way into other sectors, such as furniture manufacturing, firewood, and gardening.