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February 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

Barrels To Suit Your Wine Style

Customizing oak origin, stave thickness and grain, toast profile and more

by Andrew Adams
It’s not just the wood, toast and shape; coopers today offer a wide variety of custom touches that go beyond laser etching a winery’s logo on the barrelhead or wicker hoops.

In fact, most cooperage representatives tell Wines & Vines that almost every barrel order they fill is custom tailored to the needs of their clients. Quinn Roberts, the master cooper of Tonnellerie Ô, says he looks forward to working with clients to get exactly what they want in a barrel. “We’re always open to new ideas,” he says. “If it’s physically doable and we have the necessary materials, we’re willing to satisfy the customers’ demands.”

Winemakers frequently come in with their own suggestions for tweaking barrels. Roberts says people usually start adjusting toasts first. Custom toasting ranges from short, high-intensity “flash” toasts that are popular for thin-stave barrels to slower, longer toasts at lower temperatures. “In terms of toasting, that pretty much covers the gamut,” he says.

Another option is placing a barrel on a special stand with rollers so that Roberts can rotate the barrel while toasting it. He says that improved air draw helps the fire maintain a higher intensity and creates a convection effect. The method produces a toast that’s not as deep and helps him toast larger format barrels without charring them.

The cooperage also offers its sous l-eau stave treatment, which is an additional water soak of 12 to 18 hours to extract some of the harsher tannins from the wood. Roberts says the treatment helps the barrel elevate fruit flavors while adding “creaminess” with subtle oak notes. “It seems to be a real popular choice for both red and white—and Chardonnay in particular,” he says.

Roberts said it doesn’t matter if a client wants two or 200 barrels, he’s more than happy to discuss building the right barrel or experimenting with a variety of oak types to assembly their spice rack of barrels.

Oak blends for your blended wines
Tonnellerie Ô offers a range of hybrid barrels as well, according to Roberts. Whereas it was common to offer French oak with American heads or a 50-50 mix on stave wood, Roberts says he can provide a blend of different American oaks or of French oak from different forests.

While the wood is all assembled the same way, Roberts said French and American tend to react differently to flame, so a hybrid barrel offers not just a blend of wood but a slight variation of toast levels as well. “They do toast differently. That’s one of the interesting things.”

Roberts says Tonnellerie Ô also has access to the Cork Supply lab, which provides analysis about what the barrels add to the wine to help determine if a custom program is hitting the right notes.

Vincent Nadalie with Nadalie USA cooperage in Calistoga, Calif., says barrels are built to customer specifications relative to toast, size and stave thickness. The cooper offers the traditional French barrel styles as well as its Perle Blanche barrel designed specifically for white wines. The barrel is built using staves with tight and straight wood grain that undergo additional water treatments and air seasoning. Nadalie says the cooperage can work with other custom requests, but stock dictates availability. (Choices in August and September are going to be far more limited than in February.)

Tonnellerie Allary provides a range of barrels up to 600 liters in size and a selection of toasts that include a lower temperature long toast, according to Nicholas Keeler, the cooper’s U.S. representative. He says other options include forest of origin, stave thickness and grain tightness. “We are easily able to adapt our production to their demands,” he says of the company’s clients. “If there is a special demand, or an exceptional lot of oak becomes available, we are able to work with our clients from the very beginning—offering complete control, security and tracking of their custom barrel-making process.”

Tonnerlie Radoux’s sales and marketing manager, Martin McCarthy, makes a similar point, saying some of the cooper’s clients in the Midwest and eastern United States have used their own trees from wood lots they’ve aged themselves. “Everything is customizable,” he says.

Narrowing down the options
Most client consultations begin in late winter and early spring. McCarthy says a client’s style may match standard toast and barrel types, but it’s quite common to tweak those standards to fit winemaking styles. “In a sense, every barrel we sell is a custom barrel,” he says. “You start off with a whole bunch of options and narrow it down.”

McCarthy admits the range of barrel options gets much narrower for someone calling at the height of harvest.

Wood of origin “is usually the best point of departure” for starting the process of matching the right barrels to wine, McCarthy says. From there, it’s a matter of determining toast, size and any other coopering options such as varying toast time and temperature.

Because every cooper is essentially using the same trees, McCarthy says that proprietary toasts and toasting methods can really provide the custom elements that differentiate barrels.

He says one such step is bousinage, the process of placing a metal lid over the top of the barrel during toasting. McCarthy says this method spikes the temperature of the flames to add certain qualities to the toast.

Radoux also offers its “Revelation” and “Integration” toasts, which are tailored to certain wine types and styles. Such specialty toasts have standard protocols, but McCarthy said even these can be tweaked to a customer’s specifications.

At the core of the cooper’s customization efforts, McCarthy says, is Radoux’s OakScan process, through which individual staves are scanned to determine potential tannin. McCarty says the relative tightness of grain on a stave does not always provide an accurate indication of that wood’s tannin level. “To the eye it’s tight grain, but by tannin level (maybe) it is not.”

With the OakScan system, Radoux can offer winemakers greater precision to help winemakers to dial in their oak selections as well as provide the opportunity to build a custom barrel based on tannin level.

Dozens of different toasts
Last year, Cooperages 1912 unveiled the Fusion line of barrels that are built with a combination of French, American and European oaks.

Fusion allows winemakers to play with the proportions of oak type for staves and heads. International sales director Jason Stout says representatives can tell clients how different proportions affect flavor profiles, and the company recently introduced an app to do the same thing.

For the cooper’s other product lines, Stout says TW Boswell employs optical scanning technology to precisely read the oak’s growth rings. Staves are grouped by their ring count, and coopers construct barrels with staves of the same ring count. The end result, Stout says, is a barrel tagged with something like 12.9 GPI, or growth rings per inch. This allows winemakers to customize between fine grain and extra fine grain. “You know you’re getting the extra fine,” Stout says.

Cooperages 1912 has a more traditional approach to customizing barrels, but Stout says it comes with “absolute precision.” He adds that a major driver in the push for more custom options came from World Cooperage and its vast variety of toast profiles. Stout says the cooperage has developed around 130 distinct toasting profiles, yet not all of them are used every year. “In any given season, we’re going to have 60-plus toasting profiles that we’re selling in pretty good volume.”

As budgets continue to stay tight, Stout says his clients need their barrel programs to fit their wine styles, and custom options ensure that happens.

“Customizing is driving the industry; there is no doubt about it,” Stout says. “That comes from the winemakers, they wanted more options.”

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