What's the Deal With Tree-Free Chardonnay?

wine, aging, wine barrels, oak barrels, barrels, vineyard, winery

Only one to three of these wine barrels can be produced from an oak tree, and a barrel is needed to age every 300 bottles of wine produced. Photo: Flickr/quinet

When you’re browsing the shelves at your local wine distributor, you may come across a curious bottle: Yellow Tail Tree-Free Chardonnay. Tree-Free? Does that mean the Australian wine label is greening up to save the planet? Well, yes and no.

Casella Wines, the vineyard that produces Yellow Tail wines, dreamed up the idea more for flavor than for environmental impact. The Tree-Free variety is not aged in oak barrels like most Chardonnays, which gives it a lighter, crisper flavor profile, Yellow Tail said.

But not using oak barrels does cut back on the vineyard’s use of wood. And the label even commemorated the tree-saving occasion by sponsoring tree planting ceremonies in Nashville, Tenn. in honor of the wine’s release.

So, how much wood does oak-free wine really save?

It depends on the vineyard, but most wine barrels hold about 60 gallons – or 300 bottles – of wine. Wine labels can sell hundreds of thousands of bottles per year, and that can mean a whole lot of trees – and old ones at that.

Typically, oak trees used to make wine barrels are at least 60 years old, and some barrel makers (called “coopers” in the connoisseur world) only use trees that are 150 to 200 years old, according to Wine Spectator magazine. Depending on the condition of the oak, a cooper can produce one to three 60-ounce barrels from each tree.

It may seem as if vineyards are using a ton of wood, but those numbers can be deceiving. Wine barrels are pricey (about $200 for American oak and $500 for French oak). Although some vineyards prefer the flavor of fresh barrels and choose to use new ones for each batch of wine, most vineyards reuse their barrels for at least five years to save on cash and impart additional flavor.

All wine trivia aside, the numbers don’t lie: Tree-Free Chardonnay really does save trees. If Yellow Tail sells 100,000 bottles of the oak-free wine this year (which is a pretty humble estimate for a label whose bottle sales number in the millions), it will save at least 111 oak trees. So, have a sip, and save a tree!

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