Lighter Touch for Better Integration
New barrels and toasts offer options for winemakers' oak programs
Balance has been a much-contested word in the wine industry lately, but that debate has largely focused on ripeness in the vineyard.
In the cellar, however, winemakers are mindful of finding the right balance between oak and wine. In seeking ways to differentiate their products and help them stand out in the cooperage crowd, barrel suppliers have launched new items and toasts that they say help showcase the fruit characteristics of wine while giving it the structure of new oak with subtler, nuanced oak flavors.
New toasting technology
Jim Boswell, president of The Boswell Co. in San Rafael, Calif., sells French and American barrels and oak barrel alternatives and has been in the barrel business for more than 30 years. He said the new Éclat barrel from French barrel alternative pioneer Vinea represents what he considers an actual innovation in cooperage. “The Éclat is something that has never come down the pike before,” he told Wines & Vines.
French cooperage veteran Jean-Christophe Varron founded the Vinea line of barrel alternatives in 1994. Vinea, which is distributed in the United States by Boswell, still uses fire-toasting for its products, while most barrel alternative companies use convection heat or employ a ceramic heating element for toasting.
Varron, however, took the concept of using a ceramic heating system and applied it to barrel toasting. He said Varron’s new machine lowers a heating element into the unfinished barrel and toasts the entire interior surface. Boswell could only describe the process in general terms, as Varron is keeping a tight lid on the new toasting system, even refusing to release photos of it.
The machine provides temperature control and uniform heating that applies even toasting through the barrel stave. “This is a very interesting concept that you can toast the entire depth of the wood and you have uniformity,” he said.
Boswell said the absence of an open flame means there’s less smoky flavor imparted to the wood and almost zero chance of the staves blistering during the toasting process.
What this new approach means for wine aging remains to be seen. Varron partnered with about five dozen Bordeaux wineries for trials in 2012 and reported that wines aged in Éclat barrels exhibited excellent oak integration and a quality he described as “sucrosity.” Boswell said the quality refers to the sweetness and roundness of the oak.
About 130 of the barrels have been placed in about 20 U.S. wineries including both Cabernet and Pinot producers. In France, Boswell said several of the wineries used samples of wines aged in Éclat barrels for en primeur because the wines were so well integrated and tasted as if they’d spent far more time in a barrel.
Boswell said the barrels could offer short-term aging, but that’s still unclear. “That’s a concept; it might actually be true, but we don’t know.”
Tight grain for better integration
When a wine needs more time in the barrel, the best option is usually to use barrels made with tight grain for a longer, balanced extraction of oak tannin and flavors.
Coopers have long offered premium barrels featuring tight-grain wood that has been seasoned for at least two years. Better quality oak alternatives have allowed winemakers to stretch their oak budgets and ensure their best wines age in the best possible barrels.
“I find they are aging more and longer compared to France, which was very long before and now is less,” Vincent Nadalie said of recent trends he’s noticed among American winemakers. Nadalie runs Nadalie USA in Calistoga, Calif., which is the American branch of his family’s French cooperage.
Tonnellerie Nadalie in Bordeaux just released its new “Elite” barrel featuring “fine tight-grain” French oak, which is slightly larger than the “extra tight grain” oak used in its Colbert barrel.
Nadalie said the wood for the Elite bar rel is sourced from a blend of French oak forests—mainly Tronçais, Allier, Center of France and Nevers. The barrel has been in trials at wineries in France for three years, Nadalie said, so that the cooperage could fully understand all of its sensory characteristics. He said the Elite barrel is ideal for aging Bordeaux varieties for 20 to 28 months, and that “it brings softness to the tannins and a nice integration.”
Tonnellerie Nadalie places a strong emphasis on the wood’s forest of origin. Vincent Nadalie said the company undergoes rigorous auditing of its wood purchases and applies its own traceability program. Nadalie said the cooperage controls 98% of its supply, essentially everything except the hoops.
In addition to the tight-grain French oak Elite and Colbert barrels, Nadalie also sells its Symphony barrel, which is made from the tightest grain American oak the cooperage can find from forests in Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Symphony staves are aged for 24 months, but Nadalie will season them for 36 months on request, which Vincent Nadalie said has become more popular. “I see more and more 36-month aging in American oak; that’s the demand,” he said.
A few coopers practice even longer seasoning. Taransaud Tonnellerie offers its five-year-aged T5 barrel and Francois Frères has a 48-month barrel. Earlier this year, T.W. Boswell released its new Cool Climate Series of barrels with 36-month-aged, tight-grain wood to emphasis the fruit of higher acid, cooler climate wines. In 2012 Tonnellerie Quintessence launched its “hydro-dynamique” program, which uses a specialized tank to circulate water around barrel staves to extract tannin to create a finished barrel that offers a gentler touch; Tonnellerie O also offers barrels made with staves that have undergone its sous l’eau water soak of 12 to 18 hours to extract some of the oak’s harsher tannins.
In addition to grain and seasoning time, barrel toast plays a pivotal role in the interplay between wine and oak.
Lighter, complex toasts to showcase fruit
Tonnellerie Vicard, which is distributed in the United States by Bouchard Cooperages that has an office in Napa, Calif., unveiled two new toasts this year designed to impart a softer oak presence and highlight fruit characteristics.
Bouchard Cooperages’ international manager Gary Chappell said Vicard’s new Gradual Toast and Chauffe Blanche toasts are the result of a shift in appetite by French consumers. “They are a result of a new trend in France, where you’ve got a lot of young consumers that aren’t really buying the ‘I want to buy a wine and lay it down for 20 years,’” he said.
The Gradual Toast involves a longer toast time, but with steadily increasing temperatures. According to information by Vicard, the toasting begins at about half the temperature of regular toasts but then increases to the same temperature through a series of intervals.
The toast is offered in three levels: Gradual 160, Gradual 170 and Gradual 180. The Gradual 180, for example, eventually reaches the same temperature of a traditional medium toast, but the toasting process takes twice as long and the starting toast temperature is far cooler.
Because Vicard toasts barrels with a computer-controlled, automated system, the cooper claims it can offer exceptionally precise toasting temperatures. The gradual increases in temperature and longer toasting times also impart notes from the entire spectrum of oak flavors, Chappell said.
As toasting temperatures increase, Chappell said flavors shift from vanilla to mocha, furfural and eventually charcoal. “If you do this gradual toast, you’re kinda going to get all of those,” he said.
But because the toasting doesn’t stay at one constant temperature for the entire process, the toast doesn’t offer all of the sensory characteristics from a particular toast type. While offering more complexity, Chappell said the toast flavors are subtler.
The Chauffe Blanche toast is the lowest temperature toast offered by the cooper and is intended to produce a barrel with minimal notes of smokiness, charcoal and furfural. Chauffe Blanche toast barrels are meant for light-bodied red or white wines that could benefit from some structure to highlight their fruit, Chappell said.
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