Tag Archive | spoilage

Minimizing Spoilage of Wines in Barrel

By: Denise M. Gardner

The use of oak in the winery offers many options from winemakers.  With today’s availability of various oak products (i.e., chips, staves, powders), winemakers have more choices than ever before to integrate a wood component into their product.  However, the use of oak barrels remains an intrinsic part of most winery operations.  During the aging process, oak barrels have the potential to:

  • integrate new aromas and flavors into the wine.
  • add mouthfeel and/or aromatic complexity to the wine.
  • change the wine’s style.
  • add options and variation for future wine blends.

Additionally, the barrel room is often romantically viewed upon by consumers, and it is not uncommon for visitors to find barrel show cases in many tasting rooms, private tasting rooms, or while on a guided winery tour.

The barrel room at Barboursville Vineyards (VA) gorgeously catches the eyes of their visitors. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner


Oak fermenters at Robert Mondavi Winery (CA) that guests can see on their famous guided tour. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Nonetheless, barrels also offer challenges to wineries.  One of the most inherent challenges associated with a barrel program is maintaining a sanitation program.

The growth of spoilage yeast, Brettanomyces, is often discussed amongst wineries that utilize barrel aging programs.  However, additional spoilage yeast species such as Candida and Pichia have also been associated as potential contaminants in the interior of wine barrels (Guzzon et al. 2011).  Brettanomyces, commonly abbreviated as Brett, was first isolated from the vineyard in 2006 (Renouf and Lonvaud-Funel 2007) and until that point had most commonly been associated with the use of oak in the winery.  The growth of Brett in wine has the potential to impart several aromas as a result of volatile phenol [especially 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) and 4-ethylguaiacol (4EG)] formation in the wine.  Descriptors used to describe a Bretty wine include: barnyard, horse, leather, tobacco, tar, medicinal, Band-Aid, wet dog, and smoky, amongst others.  It should be noted that the presence of these aromas does not necessarily confirm that Brett is in the wine; there are other microflora, situations (e.g., smoke taint) or oak chars that can impart some of these aromas, as well.

Brettanomyces aroma descriptors. Image by: Denise M. Gardner

When barrels are filled with wine, it’s important to monitor the wine regularly for off-flavors while it is aging.  Wines should be regularly topped up with fresh wine to avoid surface yeast or acetic acid bacteria growth that can contribute to the volatile acidity (VA).  We usually recommend topping barrels up every-other-month.  Keep in mind that free sulfur dioxide concentrations can drop quicker in a barrel compared to a tank or wine bottle (MoreFlavor 2012) and free sulfur dioxide contractions should be checked (in conjunction with the wine’s pH) and altered as necessary to avoid spoilage.  Finally, when using a wine thief, both the internal and external part of the thief need cleaned and sanitized in between its use for each and every barrel to avoid cross contamination.  Dunking and filling the thief in a small bucket filled with cold acidulated water and potassium metabisulfite (acidulated sulfur dioxide solution) is a helpful quick-rinse sanitizer.

Barrels offer a perfect environment for microflora to flourish.  Wine barrels are produced from a natural substance (wood), which has its own inherent microflora from the point of production; obviously, barrels are not a sterile environment when purchased.  However, the structure of wood is rigid and porous, which provides nooks and crevices for yeast and bacteria to harbor within.  The porosity of the wood also makes it difficult to clean and sanitize, especially when compared to cleaning and sanitation recommendations associated with other equipment like stainless steel tanks.  Guzzon et al. (2011) found that barrels used over 3 years in production had a 1-log higher yeast concentration rate retained in the barrel compared to new and unused oak barrels.  This demonstrates the ideal environment within the barrel for retaining microflora over time, even when adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are utilized in the cellar.

Common barrel sanitizers include ozone (both gas and aqueous), steam, hot water, acidulated sulfur dioxide, and peroxyacetic acid (PAA).  A study conducted by Cornell University on wine barrels used in California wineries found the use of sulfur discs, PAA at a 200 mg/L concentration, steam (5 and 10 minute treatments) to be effective sanitation treatments for wine barrels (Lourdes Alejandra Aguilar Solis et al. 2013).  In this same study (Lourdes Alejandra Aguilar Solis et al. 2013) ozone (1 mg/L at a 5 and 10 minute treatment) was also evaluated and found effective in most barrels tested, but a few barrels that did not show adequate reduction with the ozone treatment.  While the research conducted by Cornell indicated the potential lack of cleaning the barrel thoroughly before the ozone sanitation treatment, Guzzon et al. (2011) cited ozone’s efficacy is most likely caused by its concentration.  Both are important considerations for wineries.

Barrels should always be effectively cleaned of any debris and or tartrate build up before applying a sanitation agent.  This is essential to allow for maximum efficacy during the sanitation step.  High pressure washers, a barrel cleaning nozzle, and the use of steam are some options available to wineries in terms of physically cleaning the interior of barrel.  Additionally, some wineries use sodium carbonate (soda ash) to clean some of the debris (Knox Barrels 2016, MoreFlavor 2012) in addition to the use of a high pressure wash.  Always remember to neutralize the sodium carbonate with an acidulate sulfur dioxide rinse prior to filling with wine.

Dr. Molly Kelly from Virginia Tech University has previously recommended a 3-cycle repeat of a high-pressure cold water rinse, followed by high pressure steam before re-filling a used barrel and assuming the wine that came out of that barrel was not contaminated with spoilage off-flavors (Kelly 2013).  If the barrel is hot by the end of this cycle, it may be advantageous to rinse with a cold, acidulated sulfur dioxide solution before filling the barrel with new wine.  If there isn’t wine available to refill the barrel, it can be stored wet with an acidulated sulfur dioxide solution or using sulfur discs (Kelly 2013).

It is not usually recommended to store used barrels dry for long periods of time, and wineries can use an acidulated sulfur dioxide solution (top off as if it had wine in it) for long-term storage.  However, wineries that store their barrels dry need to rehydrate the barrels prior to filling with wine.  Check the cooperage for leaks, air bubbles, and a good vacuum seal on the bung.  Steam or clean water (hot or cold, overnight) are adequate rehydrating agents (Pambianchi 2002).  Barrels that leak wine offer harboring sites for potential yeast, bacteria, and mold growth, which can all act as contaminants to the wine itself.

It should be noted that contaminated barrels (barrels that produce a wine with off-flavors) may need extra cleaning and sanitation steps to avoid future contamination when the barrel is refilled.  It is typically recommended to discard barrels that have a recorded Brett contamination.  If the barrel has picked up any other off-flavors, especially during storage, it should probably be discarded from future wine fillings.

Barrels undoubtedly offer several challenges for wineries, including proper maintenance, cleaning and sanitation.  Nonetheless, engaging in good standard operating procedures for maintaining the barrel’s cleanliness can help enhance the longevity of the barrel and minimize risk of spoilage for several wine vintages.



Guzzon, R., G. Widmann, M. Malacarne, T. Nardin, G. Nicolini, and R. Larcher. 2011. Survey of the yeast population inside wine barrels and the effects of certain techniques in preventing microbiological spoilage. Eur. Food Res. Technol. 233:285-291.

Kelly, M. 2013. Winery Sanitation. Presentation at Craft Beverages Unlimited, 2013.

Knox Barrels. 2016. Barrel Maintenance.

de Lourdes Alejandra Aguilar Solis, M., C. Gerling, and R. Worobo. 2013. Sanitation of Wine Cooperage using Five Different Treatment Methods: an In Vivo Study. Appellation Cornell. Vol. 3.

MoreFlavor. 2012. Oak Barrel Care Guide.

Pambianchi, D. 2002. Barrel Care: Techniques. WineMaker Magazine. Feb/Mar 2002 edition.

Renouf, V. and A. Lonvaud-Funnel. 2007. Development of an enrichment medium to detect Dekkera/Brettanomyces bruxellensis, a spoilage wine yeast, on the surface of grape berries. Microbiol. Res. 162(2): 154-167.


Is Your Wine Slowly Turning Into Vinegar? Basic Information About Volatile Acidity

By: Denise M. Gardner

In 1857, Louis Pasteur was asked to investigate why some fermented beers would sour while others would ferment into good, quality products. Pasteur discovered that beers, wines and many other fermented products were fermented by microorganisms called yeast. However, when a spoiling effect would take place, he found that the microorganisms present in the beverage were much smaller than the yeast cells. Pasteur concluded that it was these bacteria that caused wine to spoil into a vinegar-like product. Fast-forward over 150 years later, and winemakers still deal with these spoilage microorganisms in wine today.

Volatile acidity (VA), specifically the measurement of the wine’s volatile acids, can be a challenging issue in many young and old wines. In wine, the primary acid that contributes to volatile acidity is acetic acid, which is also the primary acid associated with the smell and taste of vinegar. In my experiences traveling throughout the Mid-Atlantic, I have found many winemakers assume that they will be able to taste acetic acid before it becomes a problem in the wine. However, I would like to make the argument that by the time a winemaker tastes acetic acid (or vinegar) the problem has already gone too far. This blog post explains that perspective.

The sensory threshold for acetic acid is between 0.7 – 1.2 g/L for most individuals, and many are surprised at how challenging it can be to smell acetic acid before the levels rise near legal limits. As defined by the Standards of Identity in the Code of Federal Regulations (27 CFR), “the maximum volatile acidity, calculated as acetic acid and exclusive of sulfur dioxide is 0.14 g/100 mL for red wine (1.4 g/L) and 0.12 g/100 mL (1.2 g/L) for white wines.” There are some allowances for higher maximum VA concentrations for wines produced from unameliorated juice up to 28°Brix.

The assumption many winemakers make is that they will be able to smell or taste acetic acid (vinegar) before it reaches the legal limit, as vinegar is easily recognized by most people. However, commercial vinegars generally contain 3 – 9% (30 g/L) acetic acid concentrations, which is much higher than 1) the associated threshold and 2) the legal concentration allowed in wines.

Additionally, the smell and taste of VA is also composed of acetic acid’s oxidative breakdown product, ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate has an aroma that is similar to nail polish or nail polish remover. Its threshold is much lower than acetic acid at 100-120 mg/L (0.10-0.12 g/L). While it is not necessary for high VA wines to contain the ethyl acetate aroma in addition to a high acetic acid concentration, both usually go hand-in-hand. In some instances, the detected concentration of acetic acid can be under the 0.7 g/L threshold with a high (>100 mg/L) concentration of ethyl acetate, contributing to the “high VA” nature of the wine in question.

Enologists measure acetic acid concentration simply because it is easier and more affordable than measuring the ethyl acetate content in the winery. Additionally, legal limits for volatile acidity are defined by the acetic acid concentration.

Where does VA come from?

The primary sources of acetic acid in wine are from several spoilage yeasts and bacteria. While some strains of yeasts (Kloeckera, Brettanomyces, Candida) and lactic acid bacteria can contribute to the acetic acid concentration, many wines suffering from VA spoilage is due to the presence of acetic acid bacteria. To a winemaker’s dismay, acetic acid bacteria are relatively ubiquitous in the vineyard and winery.

Wetter vintage years or fruit with rot can be prime sources of spoilage microorganisms.

Wetter vintage years or fruit with rot can be prime sources of spoilage microorganisms.

In the vineyard, higher concentrations of acetic acid bacteria have been affiliated with poor quality fruit and wetter growing seasons. Sour rot, which typically makes grapes smell like vinegar while hanging on the vine, is of particular interest. Zygosaccharomyces and Hanseniaspora are two additional spoilage yeast genera that may also contribute to the volatile acidity of wine produced from sour rotted grapes.

Biofilms of acetic acid bacteria are also common in the cellar. Drains, exterior surfaces of tanks (especially those that have dripping juice or wine on them), barrels, vents, and floor surface crevices have all been isolated as harboring sites for acetic acid bacteria growth. The lack of adequate equipment/cellar repairs, cleaning, and sanitation can increase the risk for acetic acid bacteria contamination in the cellar.

Volatile Acidity during Winemaking

Acetic acid bacteria are obligate aerobes, indicating that they need oxygen to grow and proliferate. Many considerations can be taken during wine processing to control oxygen exposure.

Like many other microorganisms affiliated with wine production, acetic acid bacteria can be managed with proper sulfur dioxide treatments, adequate temperature control, thorough sanitation practices, and appropriate oxygen management strategies. As acetic acid bacteria need oxygen to grow, reducing oxygen in the wine is a good way to minimize potential growth.

Many winemakers experience acetic acid bacteria growth during barrel aging. However, if barrels are properly topped off every 1-2 months to minimize oxygen in the headspace, and wines are treated with sulfur dioxide (according to the wine’s pH), acetic acid bacteria growth can be managed through this oxidative processing step. It is important to note that winemakers should avoid topping barrels too frequently, as this practice breaks the natural vacuum created by evaporative loss in the barrel. The vacuum minimizes oxygen availability for microorganisms that may be present in the wine.

Other winemaking practices have been affiliated with enhancing acetic acid bacteria growth or increased levels of VA in the finished wine. These include:

  • Cold Soaking
  • Natural or Native Fermentations
  • Sluggish or Stuck Fermentations
  • Prolonged Headspace (Oxygen) or Ullage in Tanks and Barrels

These processes are affiliated with higher incidences of high VA wines because they open opportunities for acetic acid bacteria or spoilage yeast growth. This may contribute to increased acetic acid or ethyl acetate concentrations due to prolonged exposure to oxygen. Yeast selection can also play a role in this. It is well documented that Saccharomyces cerevisiae contributes minimal quantities of acetic acid (<0.5 g/L) to a wine by the end of primary fermentation. This concentration is less than threshold, and often provides “lift” or “enhancement” of the fruity aromas and flavors in the wine.

Research pertaining to cold soaking has shown no impact and increased concentrations of volatile acidity. Some of these conflicting results may pertain to the way cold soak is executed. Those using refrigerated environments may find spots throughout the tank or bin that are warmer than the surrounding fruit. These hot spots can encourage acetic acid bacteria or spoilage yeast growth at a time when the wine is generally unprotected by sulfur dioxide and exposed to oxygen. Even if winemakers treat crushed fruit or must with sulfur dioxide, it is often less effective due to the increased amount of surface area affiliated with all of the unfermented berries.

Recently crushed grape berries going through cold soak.

Recently crushed grape berries going through cold soak.

Cold soaking that includes adequate mixing in temperature controlled tanks to drop the temperature quicker appears to have a more positive effect on the volatile acidity of the finished wine. The use of dry ice into the center of a fermentation bin has more frequent positive outcomes as well. Not only does dry ice adequately cool the grapes/must, but it also displaces some of the oxygen available for acetic acid bacteria growth.

Natural or native fermentations can encourage acetic acid bacteria or spoilage yeast growth before primary fermentation takes off, but this practice is unpredictable and inconsistent. Stuck or sluggish fermentations run the risk of acetic acid spoilage due to the fact that little carbon dioxide is given off during the later stages in fermentations. Without adequate gas displacement, the surface of the wine is exposed to oxygen, which can support spoilage yeast and bacteria growth. Additionally, spoilage microorganisms will compete for nutrients with the struggling yeast populations trying to finish the fermentation.

Contamination in the Winery

The other issue wineries should be aware of is sustaining biofilms throughout the winery and cross contamination. While contaminating a wine with spoilage yeast or bacteria may not result in a spoiled wine (through proper fermentation management), it increases the risk for potential spoilage.

Avoid potential sites for spoilage microorganism growth. The exterior or interior of tanks are good places to clean regularly, especially during fermentation.

Avoid potential sites for spoilage microorganism growth. The exterior or interior of tanks are good places to clean regularly, especially during fermentation.

Winemakers should watch for biofilm sites that can harbor spoilage microorganisms:

  • Exterior surfaces of tanks, valves, barrels, etc.
  • Drains, especially drains that are not regularly cleaned
  • Crevices or cracks in floors
  • Wooden equipment, including barrels
  • Hose lines or connecting points
  • Use of unsanitized wine thieves

When taking barrel samples, winemakers should carry a bucket of no-rinse sanitizer (e.g. citric-sulfur dioxide solution, 70% ethanol) to soak the wine thief in before it enters a barrel. The thief should be sanitized before and after each sample is taken from a barrel. In fact, any vessel that will hold a solution or addition to be added to the wine should be pre-cleaned and pre-sanitized before it touches the material that will go into the wine. This is a common food sanitation practice that is carried out by commercial food productions, and wine is no exception to this rule.

Cleaning and sanitizing the wine thief is one of the easiest ways to avoid cross contamination of spoiled wine into clean wine. Additionally, minimizing bacterial growth in a barrel ensures better cleanliness of the barrel. Barrels that contain higher populations of bacteria in a wine are more difficult to clean and rid of bacteria once the barrel is emptied. Given the investment associated with barrel purchases, it is within the winemaker’s financial interest to ensure proper sanitation techniques are utilized by all cellar personnel.

Measuring Volatile Acidity

Luckily, most small commercial wineries can invest in a cash still to monitor the volatile acidity concentration from post-primary fermentation through bottling. In fact, monitoring VA is a good and easy way for winemakers or enologists to monitor spoilage through the life of the wine during its stay in the winery.

I have found that many people are initially intimidated by the cash still, but it is a rather simplistic piece of equipment to use once properly trained.

The cash still is used to carry out a steam distillation process, which separates the acetic acid from the wine. Wine and an anti-foam agent are poured into the interior bulb of the cash still. Distilled water is boiled in the exterior bulb, which surrounds the interior bulb. The boiling water slowly heats the wine in the interior bulb, and as the wine heats up, various volatile components (i.e., water, aroma compounds, acetic acid, etc.) are released into the headspace of the interior bulb. These gases, some of which include the volatile acid, acetic acid, are condensed into a liquid as it cools while traveling up the interior bulb and into the condenser. This condensed liquid is collected from the condenser tube, and a titration is used to determine the concentration of acetic acid in the liquid.

Undergraduate student, Stephanie Keller, monitors volatile acidity for all of the research wines. Using the cash still is an easy analysis to learn and manage.

Undergraduate student, Stephanie Keller, monitors volatile acidity for all of the research wines. Using the cash still is an easy analysis to learn and manage.

A good cash still will cost the winery ~$900. For an adequate protocol, please click here.

During the winemaking process, volatile acidity should be evaluated, at minimum:

  • After primary fermentation
  • After malolactic fermentation
  • Periodically through storage
  • When a film is found on a given wine
  • Pre-bottling

Fixing High VA Wines

Why all of this information about volatile acidity?

This is one wine defect that is much easier to prevent than to remediate. In lower VA-issue wines, blending with a non-contaminated and lower VA wine is often selected. It is important for winemakers to ensure that the high-VA wine is sterile filtered (confirmed by analysis) and moved into a properly sanitized storage vessel until it can be blended.

Higher VA wines (>0.7 g/L) are a greater issue, and it may be challenging to blend them away or they may have to be blended away in small quantities over time. The only practical option for wines with a very high VA is the use of reverse osmosis (RO), which can often be contracted out to various wine technology companies. RO can be costly and depending on the company, it may not be a practical solution to minimize ethyl acetate concentrations.

Ignoring the flaw is not recommended, as VA is regulated by the TTB and limits are set for various wine styles. Please visit the TTB website here for more information on volatile acidity regulations [27 CFR 4.21(a.iv.)].