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.
This is a good conversation on a little explored part of the winery carbon & sustainability chain.
The question can (and should) also be examined through another viewpoint.
Can we achieve the same wine production and quality outcomes but with the consumption of significantly less oak wood?
And with the recent introduction of a new type of barrel the answer is a resounding “YES”
This is achieved by the complete re-imagining of the design & function of the traditional oak barrel.
Christened (perhaps a little unimaginatively!) the Sustainable Barrel, it not only allows us to make precisely the same wine quality as top traditional barrels but reduces the consumption of oak wood in the 1st year of use by some 87%.
In oak weight terms, per 1,000L of wine, this is a reduction from approx. 111 kg of prime old growth oak wood with traditional barrel use, to just 15 kg with the Sustainable Barrel.
This reduction impacts everything – loss of carbon sequestration, deforestation, carbon footprint – and also, very happily, cost.
Genuine, and very significant, sustainability achievements at a lower costs.
Thi re-imagining, separates the two primary functions of barrels;
– the infusion of oak flavor/aroma/tannins, and
– the facilitation of slow oxygen ingress (note the use of the word ‘facilitation’ rather than ‘control’. Another topic perhaps).
This separation of functions opens the doors to invaluable gains.
In this crucial step, modern materials allows the function of slow oxygen ingress to be provided by a carefully designed long-life polymer barrel. This polymer barrel provides both the physical barrel structure and also precisely controls the slow oxygen ingress.
Amongst other quality & functional gains, using a polymer barrel replaces very nearly 80% of the oakwood required in the traditional barrel production. Oakwood that serves us merely a structural, but not an enological, use. This leaves the winemaker to only need to ‘use’ the first 4-6mm inner thickness of a barrel stave for his or her desired enological impact.
The carbon footprint of these new barrels is reduced by approx 80% compared to traditional all-oakwood barrels; from (approx) 0.000423 mg CO2 e to (approx) 0.000083 mg CO2 e.
These new barrels are already widely used through the US, Australia, Chile and China today. Crucially, unlike the earlier introduction and use of oak ‘alternates’ which invariably only achieve lower, more commercial grade wine quality (and that do not replace new barrels), winemakers agree that it is a comparison of like-for-like wine quality at the very highest levels of wine quality.
Winemaker, Founder & President