The signature of every winemaker: the barrel

In the ‘90s, the whole wine world was buzzing about barrique. It was a cool thing to be able to recognise the barrel in the wine, which essentially came from the toasting that suppressed all the other flavours. Today, the trend is quite the opposite: wine should be fruity, fresh and should only see a barrel in the other corner of the cellar. Nevertheless, barrel making has developed so much that by today several hundred kinds of barrels can impart influences which do not hinder but rather emphasize and enrich the wine.


In the US, for example, there’s no tax on barrels as they consider oak as a key component of wine. Indeed, it’s hardly by accident that almost all top wines are put into barrels for a shorter or longer period of time: whether we’re talking about Krug champagne or the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, or the aszús of Tokaj. Hungarian barrels such as those made by Trust, András Miklóssy or Kádár, and Zemplén oak, are known all around the world. So what makes a barrel add or take away from a wine? We visited András Kalydy (Kádár Hungary Kft) and while we talked, we touched upon almost all the phases of barrel making. The subject seems almost boundless and it got us into the mood to chat about barrels with our winemakers to see how they choose barrels for their wines. Then we tasted and selected a few barrel aged whites. 

What makes a good barrel? 

There’s a barrel out there for every wine; one that matches it perfectly but which is not easy to find. The place of growth is important, although it’s not the country borders (whether French, American or Hungarian) but the climatic and geological aspects and the varietal composition that matters. Out of the nearly 700 different oak varieties, Quercus robur, Quercus petraea and American white oak (Quercus alba) are the most commonly used. The two European varieties appear mixed due to the crossing of the species in most forests. There are only two significant places in the world where almost pure Quercus robur oak can be found: one is Tronçais in France (which is the most prestigious forest in the world), and the other is the Északi-középhegység in Hungary.


How long does it take to make a barrel out of the wood?

Even though the ageing of the staves, which is carried out between producing the staves and the manufacturing of the barrels, seemingly halts the production for a long period of time, it’s an important part of barrel making. It’s not just about drying, since if that was the case, 10 months would be sufficient for the raw material and the barrels to be made. During the seasoning of the wood, its physical and chemical attributes also change. Typically the length of ageing is between 24 and 36 months, but in extreme cases it can be up to 60 months. This is mainly determined by the wine the barrel is to be used for. The effect of bacteria and fungi, the washing-out, the cell-level damaging of the wood are important and they are determined by the amount of rain, the exposure to wind, humidity, the number of staves kept together and several other factors as maturing is done outdoors. Seasoning doesn’t only modify the aromas of the wood itself; the more we mature the staves, the more powerful the toasting aromas will be. Everything is connected. 



Beside the place of origin and the variety of the oak, as well as the seasoning of the staves, toasting also has a significant effect on the wine. The toasting degree doesn’t solely define the character of the wine itself. The temperature and how it changes over time, the duration of the toasting, as well as the timing and the amount of water sprayed are all important (water has an effect on the subsequent aromas of the barrel). Furthermore, these should be adjusted to the qualities of the wood and the wine. Besides two barrels with identical toasting from two different barrel manufacturers differing, Kádár Hungary for instance offers two different barrels at each level of toasting degree. Increasing the presence of the barrel notes can be done most intensively by toasting but that’s not the real aim. It’s a lot more important that the wine should be complex, mouth-filling and intense from the first moment, as well as for it to have a long aftertaste and to avoid the appearance of obtrusive or dominant flavours. These things can be influenced by the barrel.  


Toasting glossary:

LT: Light Toast: it results in a vibrant character with intense oaky aromas.

MT: Medium Toast: it gives a round, complex, yet fruity wine. It’s the most frequently used toasting level.

M+: Medium +: this grade is essentially about body. It broadens the wine and gives depth and mildness to it.

HT: Heavy Toast: it’s typical in the case of intense, full-bodied wine.


What flavours does the barrel add to the wine?

We can distinguish oaky elements and toasting aromas from the effect of the barrel. The proportion of the two – although not exclusively but mostly – is determined by the degree of the toasting. The stronger we toast, the more we feel the toasted notes and less of the oak ones. The reason for this is not the result of heat, but due to a portion of the aromas responsible for the woody notes disappearing. This is mainly because as the quantity of toasting aromas increase, it suppresses the wood notes. The advantage of toasting aromas for the winemaker is that they integrate in a much shorter time and the toasting can hide less elegant wood, yet in the case of more serious wines the balance between wood and wine is important. These aromas are easy to demonstrate with aroma samples, which we often do at Borsuli tastings – because they are very typical and intensive. With lightly toasted barrels, the wood and oaky nose will be more prominent and lactones are mainly responsible for the aroma notes. In the case of medium or heavy toasted barrels aromas such as cocoa, coffee, vanilla, carnations or freshly baked brioche appear. 


To make the picture even more complicated and choosing the barrel more difficult, the size and shape of barrels varies.

The volume and the shape of the barrel defines the surface area of the wine in contact with the barrel (i.e. how intensive the barrel aromas will be in the wine), and the area of the surface through which it takes in oxygen. The thickness of the staves is important because the thinner stave lets more oxygen in, which affects the speed of ageing and fruitiness of the wine. When more oxygen gets into the barrel, the wine ages more rapidly.     


The most typical volumes:

Gönci barrel (136 litre)

Bordeaux (225 litre)

Burgundy (228 litre)

265 litre

300 litre

500 litre


How much time does a wine spend in the barrel on average?

The barrel should be in harmony with the wine in the way that we take several fermentation and ageing factors into account. For example, the duration of the ageing time can vary considerably. Some winemakers only age lighter, fresher and tighter white wines for three to five months in larger (e.g. 5 hectolitre) barrels. Ageing for fuller bodied dry whites can be from 10 to 12 months (in extreme cases 24 months) even in small barrels (e.g. Burgundy). Sweet white wines can be aged for years in barrels without any harmful effects. Indeed, Tokaji Aszús had to spend a minimum of 24 months in barrels earlier, which has now been reduced to 18 months. The ageing of red wine is usually longer; high quality wines are rarely aged for less than year, and most of the greater value wines are usually bottled after being aged for between 14 and 22 months. Barrel ageing doesn’t simply enrich the wine but is also critical from the perspective of bottle ageing. Following more substantial barrel ageing, the wine can remain stable in the bottle for longer. 



Kreinbacher Estate - Mixed barrels to ensure harmony


“We always endeavour to work with used barrels. Many 500-litre ones, L (light) toasted ones. For the sake of harmony, I use a mix of Hungarian, Austrian and French barrels. We blend in new barrels carefully, in small batches, as the fruit and the minerality can be suppressed by the exaggerated oak.”

-- György Várszegi, Somló


Size: 500 litre

Types: Kádár, Trust, Stockinger, Segaun Moreau, Damy

Toasting: light (L)

Fill: used barrels, minimal use of new barrels, blended in small batches  


Frigyes Bott - I never ask the cooper what toast the barrel is


“I’m a grape grower and a winemaker, while barrel making is a different profession. I have a friendly relationship with András Kalydy who comes every year. We taste the wines from the barrel, then based on these tasting experiences, they toast our barrels. In the end, I ask only one thing of him: that he should deliver us the type of toasted barrel that is the most suitable for the character of our wine region. Apart from that, in the last few years, we’ve been experimenting with the thickness of the staves, and we really liked the thinner stave and 400-litre barrels. The system works perfectly.”

-- Frigyes Bott, Muzsla


Size: 3-5 hl

Type: Kádár

Toasting: whatever is the most suitable for the style of the wine region, decided by the cooper 

Fill: 2nd to 3rd

Káli Kövek - No wine from first-fill barrels can make it into the village wine


“A 500-litre Kádár barrel with a light toast. I bought one to try it out and it worked, I’ve fermented and aged wine in it several times since then. It’s important for me not to use new oak: the experience is complete when the barrel doesn’t sit on the wine. I use a different toast for every variety and I pay attention not to put wines from first-fill barrels into single vineyard wines because the oak would suppress the notes of the variety and the place of growth.”

– Gyula Szabó, Köveskál


Size: 500l

Type: Kádár, Zemplén oak

Toasting: light (L)

Fill: 4th

Oremus - Oak and grapes from the same soil


“I’ve been working with the same cooper for 15 years. He makes the barrels in Erdőbénye from Zemplén oak with good structure and tannin content, which he seasons with staves aged for three years under the sky. One of the most important factors is the level of toasting, which we determine together. The aim is M+ that is medium plus, 55 minute toasting over glowing embers, during which time the heat gets into the middle of the staves and the rich, toasted, vanilla aroma notes appear. We get 300 new barrels every year, our oldest barrels are 4th fills, after that we sell them off for brandy or whisky ageing or smaller wineries select from them.

- András Bacsó, Tolcsva


Size: 68 (Átalag), 136 (Gönci), 210 (Szerednye) and 228 litre (Burgundy). The small “Átalag” and the medium-sized Gönci casks are only used for fermentation, the Szerednyei and Burgundy barrels for ageing. 


The work of an Erdőbénye cooper from Zemplén oak.

Toasting: M+ slowly and deeply toasted

Fill: 1st to 3rd

Villa Tolnay - A winery is fundamentally defined by its barrels


“A couple of years ago we switched to Franz Stockinger’s barrels because the barrel is like a signature. It makes the first and a highly significant impression. We relied on the Austrian cooperage which has a strong background, impeccable quality and a recognisable style. It’s a constant juggling act with the barrels, from the 300-litre ones to the 18 hectolitre, which are prepared without toasting and bent to an oval shape by steam. In these we can already cool the wine during fermentation and the fine lees settles beautifully in them. The Pfalz oak from which it’s made from is a fast growing wood with a rare structure which enables more micro-oxygenation. Our wines are fundamentally defined by these barrels.”

– László Nagy, Csobánc


Size: 300 litre to 18 hectolitre

Type: Stockinger (Austria)

Toasting: nothing

Fill: 4th to 5th

Ambrus Bakó - I never age Riesling in a barrel for a single day


“I use loads of vessels for fermenting and ageing. Barrels in my understanding are primarily vessels used for fermenting. The barrel does matter a lot but should never mask the wine. I never age Riesling for even a single day in a barrel, the Kéknyelű depends on the vintage, while I always age the Olaszrizling for a month or two in oak. A lot of people don’t understand why but it is funny how short-barrel ageing finishes nicely. I have 100- to 600-litre, several-year and several-decade old, clean, tartar-free barrels.”

- Ambrus Bakó, Badacsony


Size: 100-600 litre

Type: mixed, non-typical

Toasting: mixed, non-typical


from several years old to several decades old

Etyeki Kúria - It would be too creamy solely in barrel


“In the last few vintages we didn’t use malolactic fermentation and we aged only a smaller part of the Chardonnay in medium (M) toasted Trust and Kádár barrels. For me light (L) is more about tannin, while the heavy (H) enriches the wine with caramel aromas. M suits Etyek and we always age the barrel portion of the white wines in M. We also use first-fill new barrels but only to a maximum of 50%. Just as in the case of the tank portion, maintaining the fresh fruit is also of primary importance.”

– Sándor Mérész, Etyek


Size: 300 litre

Type: Trust and Kádár

Toastng: with white wines only M

Fill: 50% 1st, 50% 2nd and 3rd fill

Imre Györgykovács - Even in my father’s 500-litre barrels


“I’ve always selected the barrels with Gyöngyi based on what the two of us together can wash out completely. My Furmint is fermented and aged in a second-fill barrel and I use new barrels for fermentation only. When the 500-litre barrel arrives, we wash it with boiling water twice, then I first ferment the early harvest Olaszrizling then the late Furmint in it. For ageing, I only use it the following year in order to avoid fresh barrel notes overpowering the local minerality and fruit. I use my father’s old barrels as well and an acacia one for the Tramini which I bought ages ago for 5,000 forints from a Miskolc cooper.”

– Imre Györgykovács, Somló


Size: typically 500 litre

Type: Kádár and old mixed barrels

Toasting: mixed, recently LM

Fil: from 2nd fill to 20-year-old

Ottó Légli - Chardonnay gives room for experimentation


“We’ve used several different types of barrels in the last 20 years. We started with 225-litre ones, then I discovered the 500-litre Zemplén oak barrels. In these our wines became fruitier and more elegant, so we put down our votes for them. First we bought light toasted, top and bottom toasted Kádár barrels. Then, we learnt again with András the cooper, and today I choose medium for the wine in order to reduce the tannins. I only use new barrels for the Landlord Chardonnay, and even only partly for that: this variety suits the sweet, oak notes. For me Rizling is the most beautiful in 20-25-hecto big barrels.”

– Ottó Légli, Balatonboglár


Size: 500 litre

Type: Kádár

Toast: light (L) and recently (M)

Fill: from 1st fill to 6th, mixed

Dr. Von Bassermann-Jordan - traditionally, in the German way


“We use several different types of barrels. We are happy to experiment with 225- and 500-litre French, Slavonian, American and Hungarian barrels, yet the majority of our Rieslings are aged in traditional German oval barrels – this is what’s worked the best for us with the variety. Our 1,200-2,400 litre egg-shaped oak barrels are not about the burning but about ageing, about perfect micro-oxygenation.”

– Sebastian Wandt, Pfalz


Size: 1,200-2,400 litre

Type: German style, tall oval barrels made from local oak (stück fass)

Toast: not typical

Fill: barrels used several times