Welcome to the World of Winemaking! We started off this fun A to Z Challenge with A, of course – you can read it first if you want to, I’ll wait.
For “B” in this challenge, we’re going to talk about Barrels and Bottles, and I couldn’t not do “B” without giving you my Blackberry Cabernet Recipe – those are things you’re dying to know about, right? Right?!
Barrel: wooden containers generally made of oak. Plus they’re cool looking:
I’m sure you’re asking “What does oak add?” Besides making a cellar look cool, oak adds aroma compounds to wine (maybe I should have mentioned this in my Aroma post…heh!). Fundamentally, oak lactones have coconut aromas. Some oak is “toasted” by either burning with fire or by using heat radiation to increase different aroma compounds.
Fun fact: An oak tree will only make enough wood for about 2 barrels, which will hold 50 cases of wine. As a home winemaker, I haven’t gotten to the point of making 50 cases of the same wine at one time (that’s a lot of wine!), so I have no need for a full sized oak barrel. Except, of course, as conversational decor.
Luckily you can add oak via extract, chipped, or powdered form for the smaller batches of wine that will give your wine the oakiness you get from one of those giant barrels. We’ll cover oak adding in a future post. It definitely changes/enhances the wine you’re making!
Bottle: Since the 19th century, most often wine bottles are made of glass. It didn’t always used to be a glass bottle, though! Way back in the days of Mesopotamia and Egyptian winemaking, the winemakers saved their wares in amphorae – clay flasks.
They reached their peak in usage and standardization in ancient Greece and Rome. They were easy to produce and, importantly, easy to transport. Their shape – round with a tapered bottom, two handles and a long, slim neck – served four purposes:
- The long slim neck reduced the surface area of wine that would be exposed to oxygen.
- The tapered bottom allowed sediment to collect and the amphora itself to be easily buried when cooler, long-term storage was called for.
- They fit well in the ships of the day.
- The handles eased the load of carrying them.
The amphora’s tapered bottom also proved to be useful in keeping its contents from sloshing around during a sea journey. This was accomplished by filling a ship’s hold with sand, and then partially burying each amphora in the sand. Looking at an amphora you can see the similarities to a modern wine bottle, from the long neck, which keeps the wine away from oxygen, to the sediment-collecting concave bottom of most wine bottles, the ‘punt.’
These were stamped with the vineyard’s name, the vintage of the wine, type of wine, and so on. This went on for thousands of years, through the Grecian days of wine trade, until the Romans grew to power.
The Romans, amongst other things, developed glass blowing. Glass was quickly found to be a good medium for storing wine – it did not affect the wine’s flavor, you could easily see what wine was inside the bottle, and so on. The trouble was with the method of manufacture – glass at the time was hand blown, which means that bottles varied wildly in size, so consumers never knew exactly how much wine they were getting.
For a while, wine was illegal to sell in bottles because of these problems. Instead, consumers would bring in their own containers, and a measured amount of wine would be put into that container. Think of it as buying meat at a meat counter – you watch it get weighed and measured, and then you take it home in your own bag.
Here’s a good visual on the history of wine bottles through the years (click on the image to see the full size image, it’ll open in a new tab):
Time went on, and colored glass and various sizes and shapes were experimented with. Bottles originally were onion shaped, as this was easy to blow, but it was found that a longer, flatter shape was better for storing wine on its side, which helped it age properly and keep the cork wet. Bottles ended up being around 700ml to 800ml as an easy to carry size that was also able to be made easily.
In the 1800s the industry found ways of making standard sized bottles, and regions began to settle on what they found was the ideal bottle size for their wines. Some chose 700ml, others 750ml, and so on. The maximum “standard” bottle size was around 800ml, although magnums and other special sizes did exist.
Up until around 1945, wines from Burgundy and Champagne often came in 800ml bottles, with various other similar sizes used for other regions and countries. Beaujolais was known for its 500ml “pot”.
In 1979 the US set a requirement that all bottles be exactly 750ml as part of the push to become Metric. round the same time the European Union also asked winemakers to settle on one size to help with standardization. The 750ml size has become adopted by many countries, so the winemakers could ship to the US with ease.
I use 750ml, but if I’m making a dessert wine (or something like my Chocolate Orange Port), I’ll use the half bottles that are 375ml. I also tend to love to seek out colorful wine bottles – like using cobalt blue for my Bluerry Pinot Noir, or a pretty red bottle for my Black Cherry Merlot or Pinot Noir.
The traditional colors used for wine bottles are:
- Bordeaux: dark green for reds, light green for dry whites, colorless for sweet whites.
- Burgundy and the Rhone: dark green.
- Mosel and Alsace: dark to medium green, although some producers have traditionally used amber.
- Rhine: amber, although some producers have traditionally used green.
- Champagne: Usually dark to medium green. Rosé champagnes are usually a colorless or green.
The main reason for using colored or tinted glass is that natural sunlight can break down desirable antioxidants such as Vitamin C and tannins in a wine over time, which affects storability and can cause a wine to prematurely oxidize. Dark glass can prevent oxidation and increase storage life.
Rule of thumb is that if a white wine is ‘ready to drink’ with a short anticipated storage lifespan, they’re usually bottled in clear colorless bottles. Often I’ll bottle my white wines in clear bottles simply because 1) it’s white wine, and 2) I’m especially happy with how the clearness and/or color turned out. Or, for fun, I’ll go with a bottle that’s clear but frosted, because they look cool.
And for my final ‘B’, I’ll leave you with my Blackberry Cabernet recipe – I love blackberries, so making it into wine and jam is a no-brainer. Not to mention it’s delicious to drink. I am going to try my hand at making Blackberry Whiskey or Brandy with this summer’s plethora of blackberries. I’ll keep you posted!
Meanwhile, here’s the Blackberry Cabernet Wine Recipe:
Winemaking is so much fun – at least for me – and am tickled every time I give the wine as gifts to friends and family who love drinking it as much as I love making it. While we go through this alphabetical series on winemaking, if you have any burning questions, be sure to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll reply there – and maybe even highlight your specific question(s) in a future post!
Thanks for joining me in this fun adventure!