Square barrel in round hole

Sunday, 18 September, 2005

Swiss company Cybox has developed a square oak barrel, which is claimed to triple barrel storage capacity.

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

This innovation comes at a time when many small to medium 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.

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.

Oak adds vanillins and tannins to 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% 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 US. But, the concern for the winemaker will be whether the greater quantity of the more lucrative oaked wine that can be produced 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 between wine, oak, air and lees have been made. To re-orientate from a new standard might be seen 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 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 'batonnage' - stirring the lees around with a baton (stick), in order to increase contact. Cybox, in a further innovative move, has even added a battery-powered system for batonnage.

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