Home Wine Business Editorial Living Large: Supersizing Barrels for a Subtler Impact

Living Large: Supersizing Barrels for a Subtler Impact

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By Laura Ness

Close Barrel Shot
Barrel Up Close

The two standard sizes for wine barrels, 225 liter/59 gallon barrels, also called a barrique bordeleaise, and its Burgundy counterpart, 228L/60 gallons, have been with us for centuries, and are not about to go out of style any time soon. They became really popular about a century ago because this size of barrel, when empty, could be moved fairly easily by one person for cleaning or repositioning in the winery. Prior to that other sizes were popular, but barriques became the standard method of delivering a certain wallop of oak to your wine. 

Everything goes in cycles, though. If you’ve ever been inside a really old winery in the US, like Guglielmo Winery in Santa Clara that dates back to 1925, you might see some enormous casks, capable of holding thousands of gallons. Guglielmo even has some redwood tanks that are 40 feet tall and at least 15 feet wide, holding up to 20k gallons. Yikes! Pray there’s not a spill. 

While those kind of enormous wooden tanks have long since fallen out of fashion, in favor of concrete being the darling of the mega-producers, larger formats are increasingly wooing winemakers who want less oak imparted to their wines over a potentially longer period of time. Currently, formats, like hogsheads (300 liter/79 gallons) and puncheons (500L or 132 gallons), are making their way into more cellars. 

We talked to a range of winemakers, from those concentrating on Chardonnay to those making Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, about how and why they are using these larger oak vessels. 

Molly Lonborg, recently appointed Winemaker at Rhone powerhouse, Alta Colina, located on the west side of Paso Robles, spent almost 15 years at nearby Halter Ranch. She’s got a great grasp of grapes, as the 2000-acre Halter Ranch farms 206 SIP-certified acres of 16 different varieties. Quite the candy store.

Molly Lonborg
Molly Lonborg

Alta Colina grows mostly Grenach, Syrah and Mourvedre, on fairly steep hillsides. In the cellar are barrels ranging from barriques to puncheons. Longborn says they have been trending towards using more larger format barrels each year.  

“This year, we ordered predominately hogshead barrels, then puncheons, and only a few barriques.” When we tasted some bottle and barrel samples of Syrah on a Zoom call earlier this summer, it was evident that the wine aged in hogsheads had a softer, more appealing mouthfeel than the samples taken from a standard 228L barrel. 

Lonborg explains, “Oak has an important role in winemaking and shaping the wine during elevage, however it also can be a quite powerful flavor addition to wine.  I prefer to highlight the vineyard by utilizing larger format barrels, which in turn have a lower ratio of new oak to wine, and thus have a lower flavor impact. However, the addition of the new oak still adds a lot to the wine, particularly in the structure and antioxidant properties associated with the oak tannins.”

Asked how she divvies up varieties in terms of barrel size, Lonborg tells us, “We actually utilize all barrel sizes for all the varietals on the property. The bigger the wine, the more oak it can withstand, therefore our larger wines, like Syrah, can really work well in any size barrel. If we want to utilize brand new barrels or even once or twice used barrels on our lighter varietals like Mourvedre or Grenache, we will use a larger format. However, we don’t use any new oak on Grenache, and only minimally on Mourvedre.”

Rachel Rose, Winemaker at Bryn Mawr in the Willamette Valley, wants to make Chardonnay in as fresh a style possible. “In 2014, I began using large format 500L puncheons for all of my chardonnay barrel fermentations and aging; prior to that, I used smaller 228L barriques. I love how the larger format barrels retain delicate aromatics and verve while still allowing the texture to evolve. I have also moved to making most of my upper tier chardonnay in a reductive fashion, to showcase the primary fruit aromatics and preserve glutathione, which is a natural anti-oxidant that gives the wine protection without the use of sulfur.” 

Rose uses traditional barrels for her still Rosé, sparkling Rosé, and Blanc de Noir sparkling base wine. Her 500L puncheons are strictly French oak, all lighter and longer toasts, from several different coopers.  

Fogarty Neb Bottle
Fogarty Neb Bottle

Nathan Kandler, winemaker at Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, produces an outstanding 2016 Walker’s Nebbiolo aged in Pauscha casks. The fruit comes from their Lexington Vineyard on Skyline Boulevard. He tells us, “All the great Nebbiolo wines I’ve enjoyed have all been aged in larger formats. The DeGrazia/roto-fermented/ barrique-aged Barolo-Boys stuff was never convincing to me. I had also aged some of the Nebbiolo we harvested off the tiny vineyard we have at the Fogarty winery property in barrique. Neb just doesn’t like smaller oak. It marks the wine no matter how old the cask.”

Kandler says there weren’t a lot of options for purchasing and importing large format casks of 1k Liter and up, at the time. Such casks have been widely used throughout Europe for centuries and are known as botti, botte and foudre. So, Kandler says they decided to go direct. “My old assistant spoke German, so we ended up direct importing the Pauscha’s at an ok price; it ended up being difficult and instructive why people buy from importers! Pauscha is a pretty common name in cellars across Italy, and Rhys (a neighboring winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains) had some they had been using on Zin and Chard that we tasted and thought would work.”

Asked how he processes the Nebbiolo, Kandler says, “It is fermented in stainless tanks that we can seal up for long post-ferment macerations. It is then pressed to 500L puncheons, then racked to the Botti, for the last year plus of aging. The only racking the wine sees is post malo to cask.”

Kandler says the larger formats are becoming more widely available now. “There are more and more casks around in general, from coopers like Stockinger, Bertolottti, Taransaud, Rousseau, etc. They are as popular as ever.”

His Pauscha casks are made of Slovenian oak, hand-selected by the fourth and fifth generation coopers, Klaus Pauscha and his son, Jakob, who is named for his great grandfather, who started the cooperage in what is now Slovenia back in 1875. The carnage of war led the family to flee from Slovenia to Carinthia, which is in the southern part of Austria. 

Kandler describes the wood as tight-grained and more savory than French. All of Pauscha’s barrels are air-dried for several years before processing. “The wood is barely toasted so there isn’t a lot of flavor, which is what we are looking for. I’m really only looking for slow oxygenation, not flavoring. Neb does not like oxygen at all, and it seems to find any bit of oak flavor, no matter how old the barrel.”

Asked if he has used them for Pinot Noir, he says he hasn’t done so yet. “I think they would be interesting, especially for lighter styles. The real issue for us is keeping the casks full at all times, as you can’t leave them empty. That makes it difficult with our Pinot bottling schedule.”

Kandler also has two 10hL casks from Pauscha for Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel that he uses for his Precedent line of wines. “I don’t usually ferment in them, though I have done that with Riesling.”

Kate Norris and Tom Monroe are co-owners & co-winemakers of Division Winemaking Company, founded in 2010, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Both have experience in the Loire Valley, Beaujolais and Burgundy regions. They are big fans of larger formats, telling us, “We have shifted more of our Chardonnay fermentations to puncheon sized barrels (500 liters), as they better protect the wine from oxidation and don’t impact the wine as much with ‘oaky’ flavors. For the Johan Draper and Dijon 95 blocks (which were sources for their 2018 “Trois” Johan Vineyards Chardonnay), we chose one new French oak puncheon and two neutral Burgundy barrels (228 liters). This is a mineral-forward style of Chardonnay, which we absolutely love. The aromatics are savory and spicy, with fresh peach skin, match stick, allspice and cardamom, and the ever present saline notes we typically notice in our Johan Chardonnays. The palate is electric and shows notes of fleshy stone fruits with brown spices. We believe the wine will develop gloriously in the cellar, and is amongst our age-worthy Chardonnays to date.”

In the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, in the town of Buellton, you will find winemaker Matt Dees making some kick-ass, outrageously electric Chardonnays from their newly acquired vineyard, Rancho Salsipuedes. This is the source for The Hilt wines, from vineyards planted on land nearly 13 miles from the Pacific ocean. This wide-ranging property provides a plenitude of altitudes, steeps, soil types, and microclimates, giving Dees a cornucopia of diversity from which to create wines of  distinctive styles. And distinctive they are.

So vibrant and extreme are these wines that it is like drinking in a 40-knot wind: kind of like being drenched in seawater while trying to lash a loose jib on a sailboat while heading westward on a typical day in San Francisco Bay. The maritime influence is serious in the Santa Rita Hills. Here, they don’t just lightly throw about the phrase, coined by the great Richard Arrowood, “refrigerated sunshine.” It means something. And this also means tempering the use of oak so as not to get in the way of the liquid lightning that Chardonnay wants to be from these wind-swept hills. Dees really likes using mainly 500 and 600L older puncheons. “I like their reductive environment. We also utilize some of the 320L cigar barrels, which allow for a larger contact range with the lees. Love the texture.”

Asked if he likes puncheons for Pinot Noir, Dees tells us, “At this point, I’ve moved away from large format on Pinot Noir. Where I love the tightening of the Chardonnay via the thick staves, I prefer to express the fruit in the Pinot Noir, and I tend to steer clear of reduction in that grape. The Cigar barrels are from Atelier, and we usually stick with a MT, though we’ve also had great success with a smattering of more heavily toasted Atelier. We just purchased 8 more 500 and 600L used white barrels as well as 4 more new cigar barrels. They are definitely a large part of our chardonnay production moving forward.”

Winemaker Joe Wright of Left Coast wines in Rickreal, Oregon, is another big Chardonnay fan, claiming unabashedly that it’s his favorite white wine varietal. To preserve the varietal’s ability to convey an incredible transparency of site, he is very judicious about oak. Although he uses 100% new oak barrel fermentations, he does them in 500 Liter puncheons, all lightly toasted. “Even though it’s all new oak, there is much less surface area and very lightly toasted barrels seem to help retain focus, freshness and add body to the wine without being overly assertive.”

Jim Schultze
Jim Schultze

Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Vineyard in Corralitos has come to appreciate the many benefits of larger formats across his line of estate wines. “I like to use 500L puncheons for aging our estate Syrah and our Mourvedre. I find that by using this size of the barrel, it minimizes the barrel impact, but lets the wine integrate very nicely. I typically would age these wines about 2 years in barrel.”

Windy Oaks also uses specially designed 600L barrel fermenters from Tonnellerie Sylvain in Bordeaux (about $4k) with built in roller systems for selected Pinot Noir lots. “These allow us to ferment the pinot in the barrel, with no punch downs. As a result, you get very delicate aromas and flavors in the wine, through a very gentle extraction process. The roller system allows us to rotate the barrels once or twice a day to keep the caps wet. After fermentation is complete, we empty the barrels into our small basket press and the wine goes back into the barrel for aging. We continue to purchase a few of these each year.”

Joe Ibrahim of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon ferments all his Chardonnays in 228L barrels. “The 500 liter puncheons we use provide a more delicate oak profile. When it comes to filling the barrels for fermentation, we tend to make the decision on the fly once we taste the juice from the vintage and start making our decisions for the lots. We don’t plan to use more, though, as they take up a lot of space and can be tricky to handle!”

Winemaker Dave Coventry of Talbott Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, is big on bigger when it comes to oak vessels. For his new Block Wine series of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, he’s using 50—60% puncheons, mostly 500L and 600L from Damy, Billon, Francois Frere, Mercurey, Seguin Moreau and Cadus: coopers who are all on top of their game, according to Coventry. “Puncheons really help the arc of aging,” he says. “They gently age and add oxygen to the wines in a very specific, thoughtful way. With their higher volume, they preserve the fruit intensity without emphasizing the oak.” He’s moving to 3-year air-dried wood to lessen the oak tannin impact. 

Currently they have about 250 puncheons and 4400 barriques in the Talbott cellar. “People see the shift in the wine style as we are adding more puncheons and are generally in favor of what we are doing. Actually, the cost per gallon goes down with puncheons,” he notes. That sounds, and tastes, like a win. 

He says their rep from Tonnellerie de Mercurey came to visit and asked what they could do to help Talbott make even better wine. When Coventry asked for a larger puncheon, to help push the envelope in minimizing oxygen impact, the owner custom-built 700L puncheons for them. “These are the only ones like it that exist, and they are in our cellar. And yes, we want more!” 

Coventry admits that these larger size puncheons are a pain in the butt to work with, as they don’t stack and are hard to move around. But, he emphasizes, they are worth the extra effort. 

“Making great wine is not a matter of convenience: it’s a matter of necessity.” 

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