Why we pay $1200 per barrel.
Barrels are a winemaker’s spice rack, imparting vanilla, smoke, bacon, or coffee, enhancing flavor to pull out that one special characteristic.
For a boutique winery, barrels are a critical component, and not only for storing the wine. Just as a great chef brings forward the ingredients’ best qualities through applying the appropriate spices, a winemaker can use a barrel to accentuate that one component that takes a wine from a good wine to something special, memorable, exciting.
Throughout the barrel-aging process, the oak and wine interact, enacting chemical changes in the wine and imparting it with elements of the barrel. The barrel is central in bringing in flavors like vanilla and smokiness, or softening some aspects of the wine, like tannins, while allowing other aspects, like floral notes, to evolve. A water-bent barrel can take a big tannic wine and make it more approachable. A heavy toast might help a wine that needs a lift, while a barrel from a particular forest will have a different impact on the wine profile than one from another forest. Every aspect of the winemaker’s utilization of the barrel, and the barrel’s origins, will result in more complex and enriched flavor.
New and Used
Wineries utilize both new and used barrels in the winemaking process. New oak supplies much more flavor than used. Think of a barrel like chewing gum: the flavor is most potent when you pop a fresh piece in your mouth, but after a few minutes of chewing, it becomes bland. The same concept applies to barrels. The more they are used, the less flavor they have to offer.
But used barrels still have a purpose. The winemaker may not want to overpower the wine with strong oak flavors, so they’ll use a mixture of new and used oak. When the grapes are pressed, the winemaking team decides which type of barrel to use, how much time it will spend in new versus used, and how much life the used oak has left.
Our winemaking team listens to the fruit to determine the amount of oak necessary to bring the right characteristics out of our wines. As an example, our Chardonnay is 60% new AquaFlex (steam-bent) French oak barrels, and 40% one-time used French oak. Our Idaho reds are typically around 40% new oak and some blend of used oak. Our Washington Cabernets can get 50% new oak but they also often get water-bent barrels to avoid adding additional unnecessary tannins.
There are three different main types of wood use for making barrels: French, Hungarian, and American. French and Hungarian oak are the same species, but due to their location in different climates and regions, the tree undergoes different growth processes and environmental stressors. Hungarian oak trees are smaller and younger than their French oak cousins and have a very tight grain due to the cold they endure.
A high-quality barrel can be created from any one of these regions, but we use French oak (and are experimenting with Hungarian oak). French oak lends a softer flavor profile, which doesn’t overpower our wine. American oak tends to bring forward more forceful flavors, including black olive in red wines and coconut in white wines. This works well with some winemaking styles, but it doesn’t quite fit the profile we’re going for.
Wine Fact: Not all wineries age their wines in barrel. Barrels are expensive and require a “hands-on” process. Many wineries age their wine in stainless steel vats, which hold a much larger amount of wine than a barrel. In order to produce oak flavors, chips and oak alternatives are added.
The Barrel-Making Process
First, the tree itself is aged until it is large and sturdy enough to be rendered into substantial staves. Due to the grains, the segment of the tree used for the barrel is between the base of the tree and where the first branch starts. Once the tree starts to bend it can’t be used for a barrel but is used for other components like adjuncts or staves to insert in tanks. The miller mills the cut-down oak into boards, which are sanded down.
Next, the cooperage house purchases the boards and ages them further. Traditional aging time for oak is 24 months but can be longer. Some of the cooperages that make our barrels age the wood for a minimum of 36 months, which significantly affects the taste. The wood is placed in Jenga-like stacks in the elements (rain, snow, heat, sun, everything). The cooperage house rotates the stacks so that each individual plank receives equal time on top, bottom, middle, and outside of the column.
Once aged, the coopers make them into barrels. The staves are laid out and measured to match the length of the metal hoops that will bind them together. Once the metal hoops are attached, the staves are shaped, usually by being toasted until they’re malleable. Generally, the wood is toasted by being held over a small fire made from leftover oak pieces. (Other methods for making the wood pliable include being water bent, with the staves being soaked in water, or steam bent, in which case they are misted at a high temperature.) The method of bending affects the final flavor profile. Fire toasting and steam creates an increased tannin release, while water-bent produces a more mid tannin release.
When a winery purchases a barrel, they select the toast level. Though many people think of dark charcoal when they think of toasting, it’s much lighter in reality. A medium toast provides a graham-cracker coloring. A heavy toast makes the inside of the barrel a darker brown, but still not charred, coloring. Wineries can determine if they’d like the barrel toasted, or just the heads (ends of the barrels) toasted. A heavily toasted barrel may be ideal for a cabernet sauvignon, but much too powerful for a pinot noir.
When the wood is flexible enough to be bent into a barrel shape, a large vice is attached, which slowly tightens the boards together until the structure is watertight. A hole is then bored in the side for wine to eventually be poured out, and lids for the top and bottom are cut out of bound staves to match the diameter of the inside of the barrel. Those are fitted and secured with two more metal hoops. Finally, the barrel’s exterior is sanded down, mainly for aesthetic purposes.
When you’re drinking a glass of wine, the barrel-making process that took place half-way around the world plays an intricate part in the flavors you experience. The next time you taste a wine, try to draw out elements that might have been elevated or made more subtle by barrel aging!