Barrels make good servants but poor masters. Several times over the last ten years of winemaking, the size and availability of barrels influenced my winemaking decisions. When I empty a barrel, I rinse it and fill it with a new batch of wine. I make extra just to make sure there isn't an empty barrel. Not everyone I know agrees.
Wayne is one of the best home winemakers I know. He and I met with a group of Old World style winemakers and one of them advised his colleagues to empty the barrel after bottling the wine and then let it dry until the next harvest. Wayne and I were horrified. Half a world away, we traveled with our wives to Panzano in Tuscany and heard a world class winemaker describe how he empties the wine from the barrel in mid-winter, rinses and partially dries the barrel and puts the Chianti Classico back into the same barrel. (Wayne looked pleased.)
I love the concentrating effect and the flavor notes that oak barrels bring to wine. When they get old enough, I add oak chips to replace the flavor that has faded. We've had good results cleaning out used distillery barrels that can emerge from the barrel cleaning with muted flavors but still valuable for the concentrating effect.
I used to park barrels with water to which I added meta, but on one occasion found that it was difficult to control the amount of sulfite that wound up in the wine even after rinsing. I like to give malolactic fermentation plenty of time to complete.
Replacing barrels every few years makes sense. The photo that accompanies this post features Ken Macintosh next to a Pommery champagne barrel in Reims, France. The barrel may be the largest champagne barrel in the world and it was crafted in 1903!
Comments are certainly welcome either here or on Twitter as @Garagist