Skip to main content

What is a barrique? Exploring wine’s most popular barrel size

Learn about these wooden vessels made famous by vintners in Bordeaux

Wine barrel barrique
Jim Harris / Unsplash

Walk into any winery on planet Earth and you’re sure to run into a barrel or two. Most commonly, these barrels are barriques, the wooden vessels made famous by vintners in Bordeaux and known for their ability to gently bring a wine from fermented juice to something well integrated and special.

Think of the barrique as the most common size of wooden barrel out there. It holds 225 liters, or about 59 gallons, making it immensely heavy when full (over 500 pounds). Yet, thanks to barrel racks and forklifts, it can be stacked elegantly in cellar spaces and climbed upon by intrepid cellar hands carrying out their day-to-day winemaking tasks.

The barrique basics

Wine barrels
leohau / Pixabay

With more and more wineries opting for the barrique name, it’s worth knowing the basics. For starters — and on a surface level — it’s a sexier name. Saying something spends ten months or partially ferments in barriques makes it immediately intriguing. Shoot, if you just compared the feel of the names alone, you’d think barriques were reserved for fine wine and barrels for wastewater.

Why wood when it comes to wine? A variety of reasons. French oak is relatively delicate, without imparting too much flavor. For lighter wines, this is preferred. In fact, it’s popular for bigger wines, too — ones that aspire to show less barrel-ness and more fruit and freshness. As the American wine industry continues to experiment, we’re seeing more wood from elsewhere (or non-wood options like cement and amphora), including some grown and crafted into barrels right here at home and from woods other than oak (though due to porosity, oak is the preferred wood for barrels).

Now, there’s a lot of variation within even a category like French oak, and these details tend to bring out the bigger differences in the resulting wines. Somm types like to dive head-deep into the terroir of the barrel forest itself, citing the specific spot in France where the tree was grown and how old it was before felled. Generally, new oak imparts more flavor (think vanilla) and the toast range of a barrel can alter wine components as well (the wood is toasted at various levels — think of it like turning the nob on your toaster). As a note, a toast is different from a char, which is used in whiskey barrels (and for some whiskeys, both are used).

fFrench oak wood planks
Anthony Sejourne / Getty Images

Of course, the amount of time the wine spends in the barrel can make a big difference. Wines will age in barrel anywhere from six months to several years. Basically, the longer they age, the mellower they get. With percentages of new oak, note that the wine is not typically moved from new barrel to old barrel if it’s, say, listed as 50% new wood. Instead, half of the wine is aged in new barrels and the other half in older barrels. The two lots are blended and, voila, the wine is half new oak.

The size of the barrique is no accident. It offers an ideal ratio of liquid to wood. With a fair amount of surface area, the wine’s phenols can do their little dance with the makeup of the wood, taking on certain flavor notes, and creating harmony and balance in the wine itself.

It’s a barrel type that can be topped easily, all the more important for a winemaker not shooting for the excessive oxidation that comes with something like, say, certain types of sherry. Assistant winemakers amble up large barrel stacks every few weeks, adding wine to barrels to keep them full and free of any spoilage. Evaporation takes its fair share, claiming up to six or more gallons in a barrel if left untouched.

Historically, the 225-liter size was set in the mid-19th century. It was about the largest size that could still be manipulated by hand, by a single soul if empty or a pair of strapping folks if full. Back in the day, the wines went straight onto ships this way, traveling slowly to their destination before being blended or bottled.

Which wines are aged in barriques?

Four wine glasses on top of an oak barrel
Maksym Kaharlytskyi / Unsplash

Strong, bold wines — both red and white — as well as gentle, milder varietals, benefit beautifully from a barrique. In these particular barrels, tannins and phenols are released into the wine, giving them softer, milder, yet more nuanced and complex depths of flavor, making the process beneficial to a number of varietals.

Cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, Lagrein, cabernet franc, merlot, Sangiovese, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and Viognier and just a few popular wines that love a long soak in a barrique bath. Red wines age at least six months, usually between a year and two, while whites age in a barrique for considerably less time — usually less than one year.

The sexy underworld of the barrique trade

Portland Wine Company wine glasses
Portland Wine Company / Facebook

Winemaker Matt Berson of Portland Wine Company tends to get about a dozen once or twice-filled new barrels every vintage for his label. He said he’s known to keep a barrel as long as it holds wine, a mindset a of vintners subscribe to as they’ve got enough to focus on as it is, let alone cooperage. “I like the micro-oxygenation that comes with the tight pores of French oak,” Berson said. “It’s subtle but something you don’t get with stainless steel, for example.”

Berson doesn’t use any new wood in his cellar, but he likes the effects that come from the barrels that have a vintage or two to their name. Like so many winemakers, he’s constantly moving barrels in and out of his facility, jettisoning damaged or unwanted ones and making room for a fresh batch. Most wine regions have their go-to guy, a very specific “dealer” of sorts who slings in barriques.

Some of the attraction to a term like barrique, of course, is its wine-centric nature. “We used to put everything in barrels,” Berson said. “Even pickles.”

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
10 classic summer cocktails everyone should know how to make
Enjoy your summer with these incredible, classic drinks
Gin cocktail

We are right at the cusp of summer. It's the season of backyard campfires, yard games, dangling your feet off a dock, and seemingly endless sunny days. It's a great time of year for refreshing, crisp beer. But it's also the perfect time for classic summer cocktails. Lucky for you, there are many to choose from. And while we love a rich, complex, boozy Old Fashioned or Manhattan any time of year, in the summer, we tend to opt for thirst-quenching, fresh cocktails.
Classic summer drink recipes

The best part? These iconic, refreshing summer drinks are all reasonably easy to whip up. You don't need an advanced degree in mixology and a whole cabinet of tinctures, herbs, and other ingredients to make them. Most of them are only a few ingredients and the ones with more are still fairly easy to shake up. These are the summery drinks that everyone should know how to make. Keep scrolling to see them all and learn a few new recipes to wow your friends and family this summer.
Margarita

Read more
6 essential Scotch cocktails that you need to know
If Scotch is your thing, then you need to put these on your home bar list
Rusty Nail cocktail

Scotch whisky isn't called the water of life for nothing -- it's a divine spirit that works on so many levels. It brightens the days of the sad, and it calms the nerve-wracked masses. It's always there for you. You can drink it neat, on the rocks, or with a few drops of water — however you choose, it's a wonderful liquor.

We will admit that there are times when we want to enjoy Scotch whisky in a cocktail. We're not saying use that bottle of Macallan 50 Years Old to mix up a drink, but if you've got a nice mid-shelf whisky, you can occasionally step outside your comfort zone and mix up a Scotch whisky cocktail to drink any time of the day.

Read more
The rich history of tequila: Paying homage to nature and culture
Painting depicting the history of the tequila making process in the historic town of tequila in Jalisco State Mexico

Tequila has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s, and it seems there's no sign of it slowing down. After all, tequila is among the most widely consumed liquors on the planet. But what is it exactly?

Tequila is a fermented drink made only from the blue agave plant. It is similar to pulque, the precursor to tequila and mezcal. Pulque is also made from the agave plant and has a milky white viscous appearance. Another agave plant product is mezcal but its production involves dozens of varieties of agave plants.

Read more