The first image brought to mind when thinking of a wine barrel is a sturdy oak barrel filled with a complex Cabernet or a buttery Chardonnay, but winemakers have found the benefits of a different type of barrel- stainless steel. The stainless steel barrel has many functions that can be used throughout the process to complement traditional oak barrels, from fermentation to aging of wine, or storage of excess juice. Because of the steel’s durability and the ease at which it can be cleaned, stainless steel wine barrels are now a frequent sight at wineries.
The number one use of a stainless steel wine barrel is the storage of excess wine. Because there is a slight inaccuracy in predicting how much wine can be produced from a grape harvest, stainless barrels provide the perfect storing unit for any excess juice. The steel is easy to clean and will not impart any undesirable flavors into the wine, unlike traditional oak. Since the wine is stored in a clean stainless container it can be added to any oak barrel without fear of contamination. This creates a safe place for the excess juice, and also makes stainless barrels perfect for topping off oak barrels; as wine ages in a traditional barrel evaporation lowers the liquid’s volume. This evaporation can often allow air to enter the barrel and negatively affect the wine’s flavour. To prevent oxidation, wineries top off the oak barrels by adding these small amounts which can be lost. Again, the stainless steel barrels acts as a useful storage unit for this wine which may be needed at a later date.
The blank slate offered from a stainless steel barrel makes it excellent for experimentation. While experimenting with a new blend or yeast, it can be important that the wine’s structure be free from oak or other outside influences. Since a clean steel barrel imparts no flavor to the wine, it makes a great unit for fermenting and experimentation. Experimenting with different techniques is also a common practice with stainless barrels. The steel’s non-corrosive nature makes it ideal for the acidity of wine, which can often be too harsh for other containers. Steel barrels can be temperature controlled which allows for easy fermentation technique experiments. A stainless barrel is also perfect for experimenting in small batches with different yeasts and flavors.
It is the nature of wine to take on the characteristic of materials with which it comes into contact with; this can prove detrimental in many circumstances. A stainless steel wine barrel is a great complement to the traditional oak for storing, experimenting, and even aging wines. The strong steel creates a safe container and imparts no added flavors. A stainless steel wine barrel will prove a sound investment at any vineyard or winery.