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Journey to Harvest … and Beyond

Barrels: Part 2 of 3
Journey to Harvest … and Beyond
A “Sonoma Valleysix-pack”.Photo by Squire Fridell

By Squire Fridell

Yikes! A Correction!

A reader of our own Kenwood Press emailed me right after my last article (Barrels; Part 1), correcting me on a couple of items. Since he is a qualified Egyptologist expert (whodathunk there’d be an Egyptologist expert hiding out in Kenwood?), I thought it would be prudent to make the correction publicly. It seems that the Canaanite peoples (who inhabited the area that encompasses present-day Israel and Lebanon) developed the first beeswax-lined amphora jugs, and that the Egyptians were the first importers of wine. I stand corrected and many thanks to Alvin Berens. (I emailed Al telling him that I knew all that stuff, but I just wanted to see if anyone was paying attention …) Now, on to Part 2 of 3 stories on barrels!

Do wooden barrels have to be used to make wine?

No, but they can be a terrific tool in the making of good wine. There are three basic reasons that winemakers choose to use barrels.

First and foremost, wooden barrels hold wine and, if constructed properly, they don’t leak. An added bonus is that they are round and they can be rolled from one spot to another. (Those clever Romans!)

But today there are much better wine-holding vessels than wooden barrels. Stainless steel and foodgrade plastic Flextanks are both terrific. Both are more durable, easier to clean, and have longer life spans than wooden barrels. With present-day forklifts and pallet jacks, we can easily move them from place to place. So, if there are better vessels for holding wine, why choose to use wood?

Because wood is porous, the wine inside the barrel “atmospherically leaks” and becomes air-born. This is due to the weight of the wine, osmosis, and simple evaporation. That wonderful barrel room smell of evaporated wine is called the “Angel’s Share” (very appropriate). Unfortunately, that “Angel’s Share” creates a lot of work for me. Every three weeks I have to replace the missing wine and “top off” each barrel.

That added work is the Bad News. The Good News? When the wine fumes escape the tightly bunged wooden barrel through the wood grain, a vacuum is created inside the barrel, drawing in microscopic amounts of air through the wood. Twenty-one percent of air is oxygen, and when those tiny air bubbles trickle through the wine, the oxygen interacts with the wine and “microoxygenates” it. Lo and behold, this magical “micro-ox” phenomenon smooths out wine’s rough edges. If you were to replace the wooden head on a barrel with clear plastic and use a magnifying glass and a flashlight, you’d see tiny air bubbles rising to the surface. (It’s cool! I’ve seen it!)

Last, those early Roman barrel makers discovered that toasting the inside of a barrel brought out some lovely aromas in the wood that translated to flavors in wine. When the cooper assembles the headless barrel over an open flame, the heat causes the sap in the seasoned white oak to rise to the surface. When that sap meets the flame, it “caramelizes” and releases vanillin. If you detect any caramel, butterscotch, or vanilla in your white wine, or a touch of toasted bread, cola, clove, coconut, vanilla, or dark chocolate in your red wine, that’s from the barrel toasting. The more severe the charring, the more accentuated these aromas and flavors become.

We order our barrels one full year ahead of our upcoming harvest, telling the coopers in France how much of that charring we want. Our nine oak barrels from four different coopers in France have already been constructed and (we hope) are being loaded onto ships as I type this. With any luck (given today’s shipping problems) they will all arrive before harvest. (YouTube “how wine barrels are toasted” and watch the process. It’s amazing!)

Some winemakers choose to ferment wine in wooden barrels. We used to do that with our chardonnay, but over the years, we’ve gotten away from that technique. Fermentation creates heat and we feel that the heat can extract all sorts of oak flavors, not all of which are desired. Making wine is a lot like cooking and if you can’t control the temperature, you certainly can’t cook a soufflé. We use our barrels only after primary fermentation has been completed. In that way, we can control how much oak influence we want as the wine develops and matures. Again, a winemaker’s preference.

If barrels are so terrific, why not use all new barrels each vintage?

Some wineries do. They boast that they use 100% new oak barrels each year for their wines, but we think that’s usually too much of a good thing. We feel that barrels are like spices used in cooking … a little bit of spice goes a very long way. You can ruin spaghetti sauce pretty fast by adding too much oregano, salt, pepper, or garlic. I’m not a fan of over-oaked wine and, as I said, a little bit goes a long way.

How much new wood do you use on GlenLyon’s wines?

That all depends on what we want in our end result. For instance, no new barrels are used in our rosé or our port because we don’t think those wines warrant any added flavors from new oak barrels. But we do want those wines to microox and be smooth, so both those wines are matured in older, neutral oak barrels.

For other wines, we’ll use a mixture of brand-new and not-new barrels and, over the years, we’ve developed an “oak formula” for each of our wines. The “bigger” the wine (more alcohol, flavor, tannin), the more new oak seems to be warranted. Our “formula” is to use about 50 percent new French oak on our cabernet, 30 percent on our syrah and pinot noir, about 20 percent on our Chardonnay and about 15% on our viognier … just enough new oak to impart those wondrous flavors that toasting can give without over-powering the fruit profile of the wine. The rest of the barrels for those wines are a combination of not-so-new and “neutral” barrels.

Remember that all those different barrels of the same wine will be blended together before bottling.

What’s a “neutral barrel”?

When you fill a new barrel for the first time with wine, the wine absorbs about 70 percent of the toasted flavors the barrel can give; the second year, about 20 percent; then about 5 percent. After that, the barrel imparts very little toasted flavor and we consider that barrel to be “neutral.”

I am out of space (again) and it’s almost time to cook something for dinner, so methinks it’s time to pour Suzy and me a glass of our chilled 2021 Blush ’O the Boar rosé, a delightfully crisp, fruit-driven wine that was matured (and micro-ox’d) in 100% neutral French oak. ’Tis a warm evening and we might even drop in an ice cube or two … (don’t tell anyone). Yum!

I love input! Any questions you have or topics you’d like me to write about, just shoot me an email. (I might even comment about the appropriateness of putting an ice cube in your rosé!)

Tempus Imbibus (Latin: Time to Drink!)

Squire Fridell is the winemaker, vineyard manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO, and janitor at Glen-Lyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines. To reach him, email [email protected]