All About Barrels

Wine began stored and aged in amphorae (sealed earthenware or clay jars) that were used in Greece and Rome.

 

Wine Urn's

Wine Urn’s

It was the Celts in around 50BD that devised using wooden barrels to store and transport wines (those Celts…so smart!)

Wine barrels stacked in old cellar

Wine barrels stacked in old cellar

 

Wooden barrels were sturdy and shaped conveniently for transport.  And…it seemed that wine could actually benefit from the wood!

 

Why Oak?  Some would say out of convenience and then as a taste preference.  There are over 400 species of oak.  Only about 20 of them are typically used for wine barrels and these can very with the flavors they impart although most often the flavor noticed is “vanilla”.

 

In addition to the wood itself you have the toast.  Cooperages specialize in specific toasts for the staves and heads of the barrels and the intensity of the toast can definitely affect the flavor of the wine. Toasts are labeled as light, medium or heavy and can very from the barrel staves to the head.

 

Barrels allow the introduction of oxygen to the wine in a very slow manner.  The pace of the introduction depends on the tightness of the grain of the wood.  It also imparts the wood flavor into the wine as well as tannins, and body.  The body comes mostly from the sugars that are formed when the oak is toasted.

 

When speaking of types of Oak:

  • French oak has the highest tannins. They tend to be more subtle than American Oak.  They are distinguished by which forest they come from with 5 major regions.  The trees used are between 120-150 years old and are strictly controlled by the French Department de Eaux et de Forets.  The rough staves are typically air dried for 2 to 3 years before the barrels are made.  French barrels can run between $800 and $3600 each.
  • American oak is the opposite extreme with grains that are not nearly as tight.  Here you get much bolder flavors including spice, vanilla and butter. American oak primarily comes from the Midwest, Appalachia and Oregon.  American oak is much more affordable at $300-$500 per barrel.
  • Hungarian is usually thought of as the tightest grain, this makes it more neutral, imparting less flavors even when it is new as well as typically being lower in tannins.  Hungarian oak sits right between the two cost wise at $500-$700 per barrel.

 

Barrels lose their flavor as they age.  Typical barrels can be used for about 5 years before they are done imparting flavor.  You get the most flavor extracted on the first use, about 50%.  The second use you get about 25% and after that the barrel dwindles toward what is referred to as neutral oak or a barrel that no longer imparts noticeable oak flavor.  So…if after 5 years you have wines to age in neutral oak, you are good!  You can keep using those barrels for 100 years or so!

 

You can increase the life of the barrel and get more use out of it. I have seen photos from the Cilurzo winery in Temecula back in the 60’s shaving down the inside of the barrels to get more exposure to the oak.  Shaving at this time was a special art and the people who did it travelled from winery to winery doing this. This practice picked up in the 80’s and 90’s. Barrels would be shaved and then re-toasted.  Shaving costs run about $75 per barrel.  A new company out of Australia has a new robot called the Phoenix that uses a high-speed cutting tool to cut 9-10 mm from each stave.  This is done by first mapping the interior of the barrel with a laser.  Once the interior is cut down the barrels are re-toasted with an infrared machine.  I have heard also of adding new thinner staves that have been toasted to neutral barrels.

 

Wine Barrel's Stacked

Wine Barrel’s Stacked

Now the barrels we are talking about here are the standard 60 gallon barrels that are used in many wineries.  The ones you see turned later into planters and lawn furniture.  There is a whole different world of barrels out there that are much larger. A great example of these larger wooden barrels can be seen in southern Rhone Style wines where you want less oak contact.  Tablas Creek has great (and might I say stunningly beautiful) examples of these.

 

  • Barriques are the French term for the typical 60 gallon barrels.
  • Foudres are 1200 gallon French Oak barrels and hold enough wine to fill 500 twelve-bottle cases.
  • Puncheons are 120 gallon barrels.
  • Demi-muids are 160 gallon barrels.
  • There are also 1600-gallon wooden casks that stand upright, like a fermentation tank.

 

Foudres, 1200 Galllon French Barrel's

Foudres, 1200 Galllon French Barrel’s

Other types of containers available

  • Flextank and other companies create plastic wine tanks that replicate barrel functions and are space efficient.  If you do not need oak flavor…well you can reuse these multiple times.
  • Vino Vessel originated in Paso Robles and is a company that creates concrete fermentation and storage tanks.  The benefits are that they are more affordable, easier to clean, less space and labor intensive and longer lasting.  They also offer more natural oxygenation than stainless steel does and they are naturally stay cooler so they reduce refrigeration costs.
  • Stainless Steel has no oxygen exchange and is initially expensive, but can be used repeatedly.  They can be fitted with wood staves to impart flavor.

 

Okay speaking of adding staves…you can use these alternative vessels for aging your wine and still get oak flavor by adding staves and or oak chips.

 

So that’s the basics of barrels.  This is not to be confused with fermentation tanks.  That’s a whole ‘nother chapter! See More Wine Education

Ponte Family Estate Winery, a Tour in Temecula, CA

We visited the winery earlier this year in February (see our previous blog post on Ponte here) and enjoyed lunch on the patio at the restaurant and then Fred gave us an astoundingly informative tour, and then a tasting with Michel in tasting room.  We recently planned a trip to Temecula, which we will be posting on shortly while researching our trip we came upon some lost information that we learned from our tour with Fred, an we though we would share.

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Winery is in Temecula California, just northeast of San Diego.  The vineyard is located where it directly receives the maritime influences of the coast from the Rainbow Gap.  The soil structure here is coarse and poor.  This is ideal because you can then control exactly which nutrients you feed the vines. This nutrient mix is provided through irrigation once each year in March and the blend is different for each vineyard depending on the variety. With poor soil you don’t have to be concerned with nutrients already in the soil so it doesn’t interfere with the ideal nutrients for each grape.  Grape vines have an aggressive root structure, burrowing deep searching for ground water.  The water table at Ponte sits at 50 feet deep. Falker  (a winery down the road) did measurements to see how deep some of their 25 year old vines roots went and found that they went about 17 feet deep.  On the Ponte property are 10 acres 2 blocks of 5 acres each of Zinfandel and Sangiovese that were planted in 1960.  The roots on these over 50 year old vines go down 30 ft.  Eventually these roots will hit the water table and they will self irrigate.  Irrigation in wine country is not like in farm country, you are not looking for big juicy grapes.  Rather than watering daily they stress the vines by doing one 18 hour drip irrigation session once every 2 to 3 weeks. This keeps the grapes small and intensely concentrated.

While there is frost protection with fans and misters for the citrus groves that surround many of the vineyards, the vineyards are not concerned with frost protection as the season for frost is short enough that the vines are always dormant at that time. Bud break happens in March.  Winemakers and Vineyard Managers can tell which vine is which by the flowers in bud break.  By testing the flowers and leaves they can see how much nickel etc. is in the vine and that in turn helps to determine how to mix the formula for nutrients.

We tasted a Dolcetto that was exclusively Temecula. This juice is being staged for blending with material with Paso and Santa Barbara.  This was a tank tasting from of the stainless steel tanks out on the crush pad. It was still decidedly grape juice and was very tart, but you could taste the potential in it!

At Ponte they harvest during the night.  Sunlight affects the sugar levels of the grapes, causing the brix level to change throughout the day. To avoid this variable and have a uniform brix level you harvest at night.  After the grapes are harvested they go through the destemmer, are crushed twice and then the skin seeds and all are put into the large stainless steel tanks.  At Ponte they only process one type of grape at a time. After this comes the settling process where the grape juice settles for 3 to 5 days.  During that time skins rise to the top and seeds sink to the bottom.  The winemaker then checks the acidity etc to see how much yeast to add.  Then yeast is added and here begins the chemical reaction changing sugar to alcohol.  This generally takes 7-10 days for fermentation to be complete.  The winemaker stops at the alcohol level he has predetermined and then pumps off.  All of the skins and seeds sink to the bottom and workers scoop out this “must” which is then put back into the soil.

The barrel room is kept at 60 degrees.  All the red wines are aged here as well as the oaked Chardonnay’s. The Ponte Viognier is not oaked.  95% percent of the barrels Ponte uses are French oak that either come from Vosges near Alsace or Burgundy which is noted for it’s perfect white oak wood.  They have been experimenting with white oak from Hungary and Bulgaria and some American oak.  The difference between French oak and American oak is that the staves in Europe dry for at least 3 years, whereas in America they only dry for about a year and a half.  This creates a coarser product and more intense flavors.  The more aged the staves are the more subtle the flavors.

French barrels are expensive currently running $850 per barrel new.  Each barrel will be used for about 3 agings.  The wine maker earns their pay by also knowing which wines to age in new, medium and late oak to impart the exact flavors they are looking for.  You can tell a late oak barrel in the barrel room by the stain and seepage (angels share).  After the barrels have run their lifespan they are sold at $75 each to wine club members.  Each barrel weighs 100 plus pounds empty because the staves are so thick.  The majority of Ponte’s barrels are done at medium to light toast.  Their Syrah is done with a heavier toast and is probably their smokiest wine. About 80% of their barrels have light toast the rest are at medium toast and then winemaker blends. Each barrel holds 288 bottles or 24 cases of wine.

As the barrel room is kept at 60 degrees people often ask about how they can do events in there? When the barrels are backlit the room is really stunning.  They can warm the room for 1 night to 75 or 80 degrees and it won’t really affect the wine.  If however, it was held at that temperature 4 or 5 days….then you might have a problem.

We tried the 2008 Port out of the barrel.  This will be aged another year and it will release as a reserve port.  It is a Zinfandel port as most of their ports are, but they have made a Cabernet port in the past.  The port had a bit of a bite from the alcohol content, but with an additional year it will be stunning.  A port of this quality should run $85-$90 per bottle. But only their wine club will be lucky enough to get a shot at it!

The reserve room at Ponte is reserved for wine club members and is open on Saturday and Sunday to give wine club members a place to get away from the crowd.  They also do small plates menu.

The restaurant is open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner.  With the Tasting room closed at that time it’s quiet, you can see the stars and enjoy the noise of the romantic frogs.

In addition to the winery, tasting room and restaurant they recently opened the Ponte Vineyard Inn so you can stay in comfort right in the heart of Temecula Wine Country.

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

If you are in Temecula, I highly recommend both lunch and a tour.  Plan ahead and book a room at the Inn!