Each year seems to bring another new toast, barrel style, hybrid option or even new type of wood for winemakers to consider when buying barrels.
The many options can make the process of choosing barrels a somewhat daunting prospect. So how should winemakers choose the best barrel supplier? “Who throws the best party at Unified,” joked one winemaker.
Wines & Vines spoke with several experienced winemakers who have been evaluating barrels for years about how they want barrels to complement their wines. These experts also discussed what part of the cooperage process—from forest selection to toasting—they feel is the most crucial to achieve those sensory characteristics.
Good barrels come with good relations
Not all barrel-buying decisions are about oak forests or toasting regimens. Several winemakers stressed that it’s crucial to work with cooperage representatives you can trust. “I think the key element is having that good relationship with the cooper,” said Darel Allwine, the winemaker at Col Solare winery in Benton City, Wash. “It’s really through that critical relationship with the winemaker and the cooper that they understand what we’re looking for as far as a style of wine.”
Jeff Cohn experiments with two to three different coopers each vintage. Cohn was the winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars for several years before leaving in 2006 to focus on his own winery, JC Cellars, in Oakland, Calif. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in what coopers are doing,” Cohn said of his trials. “For me, I’ve learned what cooperages really work with what style of winemaking I do.…The wines are always about layers; it’s not just that one barrel.”
He has stuck with a few cooperages because he appreciates the personal relationship. “I buy a lot of barrels from small cooperages, so if I have an issue I’m able to call them up and talk to them about it,” he said. Cohn added that some larger coopers like Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage and Demptos Napa Cooperage still offer a personal connection he finds vital. “It’s about trust, and you know, it shows in the barrel,” he said.
Aside from a good working relationship, Cohn said he prizes origin of the stave wood and grain structure. He said, like other winemakers and coopers, he’s losing faith in forest designations. And even if all the wood for a barrel lot does come from the Tronçais forest, Cohn said there’s bound to be variation between certain parts of the forest and from tree to tree, just as in a vineyard.
Coopers, however, have become adept at ensuring the blend of woods they use provide a consistent flavor profile, Cohn said. Better control of wood sourcing helps all stages of the cooperage process. “I think with better understanding of the blends they’re making, they know how to toast those barrels to make them more consistent,” he said.
Technology and new options often appear to be driving the barrel side of the industry, but many companies still rely on their tradition and expertise to stand apart.
Tonnellerie Vicard touts its computer-controlled toasting method, which it claims helps ensure consistent barrels by eliminating the need for someone to monitor a toast by hand. World Cooperage also uses a toasting method that is partly based on computer control. When workers are toasting a batch of barrels, they refer to a monitor that displays each barrel’s interior surface temperature.
As the toasting process continues, the computer tracks temperatures and toasting time to determine if the worker is following the pre-determined toast profile for that particular barrel. World Cooperage offers hundreds of different toast profiles, each of which has its own distinct graph depicting temperature versus time. The company’s toasting system follows these graphs to ensure consistency. Jason Stout, World Cooperage’s international sales director, said toasting is the most important part of the barrel-making process. As barrels toast, the cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and oak tannins break down and change, creating the depth of flavors. Wood from the same forest and same stave mill can provide totally different flavors based on the time and temperature of the toast.
Vincent Nadalie, who manages the American operations of Tonnellerie Nadalie, said one of the most important factors is the location of the cooperage and the seasoning yard. “For us, what is important is to be on the same soil. And it’s next to the river—the Garonne and the ocean—so you have the wind, you have the rain, you have cold in the winter,” he said. “For us it has always worked.”
Origin of forests and seasoning yards
Winemakers also noted the variation in oak. Cohn mentioned the differences between American oak that has been shipped around the world and air-dried in different places such as Australia or Italy. He said he’s fond of a small Rhone Valley cooperage that had been known as Desrieux until it was acquired by the Jaeglé family, which changed the name to Vallaurine. He said he’s always enjoyed the barrel’s unique profile and attributes that to its composition of wood seasoned in the Rhone Valley. “I think that’s what makes that barrel,” he said. “I think it’ s the microbes, and I think it’s a mixture of everything.”
Allwine joined Col Solare in 2003, but before that he managed the production of Columbia Crest’s reserve program. He said at Col Solare he’s working with Cabernet Sauvignon from the Red Mountain AVA that features a high level of intense tannins. His chief concern is finding barrels that can integrate well with those tannins and add “silkiness in the finish.” Allwine said he’s found success with Tonnellerie Taransaud, Marcel Cadet and Tonnellerie Boutes.
He is experimenting with a few other coopers, but all of Col Solare’s barrels are new, French oak. He said the winery went to 100% French oak in 2010 because the tight-grain oak just performed the best. Allwine said the most important quality of a cooperage is consistency. When he drops a cooperage, it’s because the quality and sensory profile has not been the same as previous years. When Allwine finds a barrel that fits his program, he wants to be able to trust that barrel from vintage to vintage. “Consistency in sourcing of wood year to year, consistent aging process and then the consistency between aging when they toast and construct the barrel” are top priorities, he said.
Taking control of the source
James Hall, winemaker and part owner of Patz & Hall Wine Co. in Sonoma, Calif., said his philosophy on barrels changed dramatically about 10 years ago. He said he used to buy a collection of different barrels with an assortment of toasts and grains. “I was getting complexity and diversity, but I wasn’t really satisfied with the consistency,” Hall said.
He said he was visiting the stave yard of Francois Frères in France when he noticed a pile of wood that had been set aside for a specific winery. Intrigued, Hall said he decided to purchase some wood lots and found he exchanged diversity for consistency and liked the results. “Now I buy exclusively that way,” he said.
Hall primarily uses Francois Frères for his Pinot Noirs and Seguin Moreau for his Chardonnays. He said both coopers buy and separate stave wood just for Patz & Hall. The purchasing arrangement gives Hall the certainty that his barrels will be coming from the same lot of stave wood that has undergone the same amount of aging in the same exact location. “Most coopers buy staves on the stave market,” he said. “It’s not always clear where those staves are aging.”
Sourcing barrels from the same lot ensures the wood receives the same moisture, sun, air and microbial effect. Hall also said he’s confident that the two coopers he uses employ strict quality control at their yards. In addition to Francois Frères and Seguin Moreau, Hall also purchases a small number of Taransaud Tonnellerie barrels but not stave wood because the cooper’s ISO 9000 certification offers “impeccable wood provenance.”
He said barrels are one area that should offer winemakers some consistency rather than become another variable in the winemaking process. “It’s something we should have control of; the variables are pretty much understood.”
Wood origin, seasoning, coopering and toasting can be relatively standardized, so Hall said barrel selection shouldn’t be a matter of intuition and trial. In his opinion, seasoning and coopering are the most important determinants for barrel quality, and so he’s taken a step to bring those factors under more of his control.
Such a barrel program does require him to carry the costs of the barrels through the 36 months of seasoning, but by the time he gets his barrels the cost is about the same as regular, finished barrels.
Mel Knox, who distributes Francois Freres in the United States, said about 10 of his U.S. clients purchase their own stave lots. The minimum order for stave wood is enough for 20 barrels.
Vineyard and vintage demands variety
Matthew G.R. Meyer, the winemaker at Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, Va., said he has a selection of coopers from whom he buys barrels every year, but he’s still open to new options. “I do like to experiment with barrels, so every year I’ll try somebody new,” he said.
Williamsburg Winery produces more than 50,000 cases, and Meyer said he buys 50 to 100 new barrels per year. He regularly conducts trials to find the best fit to the vineyards from which he sources fruit. In addition to using different sources, Meyer said he also deals with the erratic weather of the East Coast. In 2010, for example, Meyer didn’t use any new barrels because he didn’t feel that vintage produced fruit that would pair well with new oak.
Meyer likes Tonnellerie Remond and Taransaud Tonnellerie for French oak, Barrel Associates and Canton Cooperage for American and Zemplén Barrels for Hungarian. Some features such as the water bending used by Barrel Associates on its American oak do seem to have a good impact on quality, but Meyer said he feels the most important factor is wood origin and quality control by the cooper. “Ultimately it seems to me stave origin is what I’m looking for foremost,” he said.
Meyer said he sometimes finds barrels that don’t harmonize with the wine, although he feels that’s just because it’s a pairing that didn’t work rather than a faulty barrel. “I have yet to come across a barrel and say that’s just a bad, bad barrel,” he said. “I’ve just had some that didn’t work for the wine.”
Through securing their own wood, establishing close relationships with cooper representatives or extensive trials to find what’s right, the constant theme in the discussion of barrels and wine quality is consistency. Winemakers may have their own way to seek it, but all agree a consistent oak program is a good one.
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