Are new oak barrels toasted and filled with wine before they’re sold?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Are new oak barrels toasted and filled with wine before they’re sold?

—Bert, Kearny, N.J.

Dear Bert,

When a winery orders a new oak barrel, it’s toasted to the winery’s specifications, but it shouldn’t arrive with wine inside it! (Check out our FAQ page on barrels for more details on toasting and barrel construction.)

A new barrel has a very strong aroma—get anywhere near it and you’ll be hit with the smell of cedar, spice or toasted vanilla. A more heavily toasted barrel will have stronger aromas of toasted spice and smoke. Which characteristics the barrel imparts can also depend on the type of oak used—French and American oak are both popular, among others—and the size of the barrel—smaller barrels are more potent than larger barrels due to the increased surface area–to-volume ratio of smaller barrels.

Some winemakers prefer to use new barrels for fermentation or aging because they can impart those strong aromas and flavors to the wine. Each time a barrel is used, that aromatic influence dissipates a bit, and after about three or four uses they are considered “neutral.” Even though neutral barrels won’t contribute those strong aromas, they still give the wine a richer, creamier texture. Some winemakers use a mix of new and neutral oak barrels, or different types and sizes of oak barrels, to achieve the style of wine they’re aiming for.

If you’ve ever been at a winery and saw a shipment of barrels arrive that looked like they were already stained with wine, that’s probably because the winery purchased some used or neutral barrels from a barrel broker, or got them from another winery.

—Dr. Vinny

Ask Dr. Vinny Winemaking Techniques Explained

More In Dr. Vinny

How can I make sure my wine is at the right serving temperature?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers a few simple methods for accurate temperature …

Feb 22, 2021

Can a wine stored in ideal conditions outlast its recommended drink window?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains recommended drinking windows for aging wine.

Feb 15, 2021

How do you open a bottle of wine that has a wax capsule?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how to deal with wax-topped wine bottles, …

Feb 1, 2021

Where do wine club wines come from?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains where private label wines come from, and what …

Jan 25, 2021

What’s the difference between Brix, Baumé, Oechsle and residual sugar?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why measuring sugar content in grapes is so …

Jan 18, 2021

Will my wines get too cold in the garage?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny covers the pitfalls of storing wine in the garage, …

Jan 11, 2021