Square barrels could triple oaked wine capacities

Related tags Wine

After seven years of development, Swiss company Cybox unveiled its
square oak barrel, which triples barrel storage capacity, at the
Vinitech exhibition in Bordeaux last week, reports Kim Hunter

It was the unexpected spectacle of the exhibition, provoking a certain degree of intrigue among the traditional viticulturalists of old France. "We had mixed reactions"​ said Ghyslaine Roux of Cybox, "but everyone at Vinitech wanted to see the Fût Carré."

Cybox​ developed the new barrel with the help of more than 50 winemakers in Switzerland. "It took so long because we had to wait a year each time to test the modifications we made,"​ said Roux.

A traditional 'barrique' is curved and wider in the center than at the ends. It takes up large amounts of storage space and is cumbersome to clean. According to Cybox, three 225 litre square barrels take up the same space as just one traditional 225 litre barrique.

The innovation comes at time when many small and medium sized wineries face crisis, and, when oak matured wines are the big sellers on the market. The amount of lucrative oaked wine that a vineyard with limited storage space can produce could be tripled.

A more user-friendly, square, barrel is an obvious advantage and for this reason, the idea not a new one. But, insists Roux, it is Cybox's unique design that makes it the first real square possibility.

In the traditional curved barrique (which is lain on its side), the surface of the liquid exposed to air is much smaller than it would be in a square container. Too much air will destroy the wine. But, the interior of the Cybox barrel has two sloping edges at the top and bottom.

The volume is smaller at the back than at the front. The plug (for filling), importantly, is at the front rather than the middle of the barrel. This combination means that the liquid surfaces at only the front corner of the barrel. "We would say the amount of air that comes in contact with the wine is the same as with the traditional barrique,"​ said Roux.

Why, then, the mixed reaction? Winemakers could make thousands of euros from the innovation, but there are, just as with anything new in French winemaking, many question marks that could prevent its uptake. Oak may be a money maker but its application is somewhat of an art.

It adds vanillins and oak tannins to the wine. These influence the taste and protect the wine when it matures further in the bottle. Molecular quantities of oxygen permeate through the wood, which is thought to be an important part of the maturing process and an additional advantage of oak independently of the oak taste. This 'micro-oxidisation' is often emulated in non-oak matured wines.

75 per cent of mid-size wineries in the US use barrel alternatives, commonly stainless steel tanks containing oak staves and with micro-oxidisation. This figure is constantly growing and not just in the new world. It is the winemaker who has resisted this path so far that may be interested in the fût carré.

But, as before, his concern will be whether the greater quantity of the more lucrative oaked wine that he can produce will be to the detriment of its quality, or individuality. The barrique has been used for centuries, it is the standard from which slight adjustments to relationships been wine, oak, air and lees (sediment) have been made. To re-orientate from a new standard might be see as too great a risk.

Cybox's square barrels have been designed to come as close to the barrique as possible. They contain the same quantity of oak as the barrique and are burnt in order to emulate the results of the traditional cooperage process. But, because of their shape, the surface area of oak that reaches the wine is slightly smaller. This may not be undesirable but it is nonetheless different.

A second difference concerns the lees, sediment that collects at the bottom of the traditional barrel. The curved shape of the traditional barrique, lain on its side, gives the lees a lesser surface area with the maturing wine than would be in a flat-bottomed container. The sloping bottom edge of the Cybox barrel does compensate this to some extent, but contact with the lees is still slightly greater than in the barrique.

This, again, is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the methods that the winemaker has to control the taste (specifically the 'body') of the wine during fermentation is to use "bâtonnage" - stirring the lees around with a bâton (stick), in order to increase contact. Cybox, in a further innovative move, has even added a battery powered system for bâtonnage.

Oak barrels must be replaced every three to four years and the Fût Carré is competitively priced. These barrels could play a significant role in the future of winemaking; the slightly different properties and the small drift from tradition will be have to be weighed up by winemakers against the economic incentives of making more oaked wine.

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