February 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Crafting Château Barrels

Bells, whistles and specific uses in wine development

by Kate Lavin

Touring around his newly constructed cooperage in Benicia, Calif., Tonnellerie Ô master cooper Jason Butler explains that prior to the Industrial Revolution, French châteaux would employ a cooper to craft wine barrels on their premises. Modern technology changed the division of workflow, of course, so that barrel-makers began working for cooperages and not individual wineries, but much of the Old World craftsmanship forged in the châteaux of Bordeaux lives on through the aptly named “château” barrel.

Many wineries put château barrels on display to show off their handsome details to trade visitors and consumers. But take a close look at the château barrel, and you’ll notice that each time-tested detail is useful in a winery setting. So, what differentiates a château barrel from any other oak barrel?

Standing out
There are several types of château barrel, but the most recognizable is the château tradition. Like the Bordeaux export barrel, château tradition has a capacity of 225 liters, a stave length of 95cm and six galvanized hoops; but it also displays details the others don’t have:

• Thin staves (more on this later)
• Recessed head
• Chestnut hoops
• Thin reed wrapped around the chestnut hoops on either side of the barrelhead.
• A pine crossbar.

Thin staves
Château tradition commonly uses staves with a thickness of between 20mm and 22mm; while staves in standard export barrels are between 25mm and 27mm thick. The thinner walls offer a greater amount of oxygen transmission, which can be preferable in terms of desired wine style.

François Peltereau-Villeneuve, chief executive officer of Seguin Moreau in Napa, says winemakers choose château barrels when they want to barrel their wine for a specific amount of time. “The key issue is what the winemaker wants to accomplish. Château brings different components, so usually it’s for wine that’s going to be vinified in a different way by the winemakers,” he says.

Daniel Baron, winemaker for Twomey Cellars and Silver Oak Cellars in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, says he first got experience working with thinner stave barrels in France around 1981. Then in 1983, he put that knowledge to work at Dominus Estate.

Baron says that thinner staves help soften the tannins in Bordeaux varieties, and that controlled exposure to oxygen creates a desirable evolution of aromatics. “There’s an herbaceous component to Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, certain Merlots and Cab Franc, and it helps to soften that,” he says. “It helps to develop from the primary fresh fruit characters into more complex and interesting characters.”

Baron says that Twomey Cellars uses the thicker-staved Burgundy barrel to age Pinot Noir, but he opts to barrel the Twomey Merlot in château tradition.

One important note, Peltereau-Villeneuve adds, is that in spite of their looks and the extra time it takes to make them, château tradition aren’t necessarily better than other barrels, they are just used for a different purpose. “It’s not so much the bells and whistles,” he says.

Still, the bells and whistles are pretty cool.

Recessed head
Coopers create château tradition with the same dimensions as other export barrels, so they easily fit in the racks and don’t require special accommodation. However, thinner staves create more volume when combined with standard barrel height and circumference. In order to make up for this and keep volume standard at 225 liters, château barrels have a recessed head, and the croze (or circular groove where the barrelhead sits) is farther inside, making it possible to see more of the toasted staves when the barrel is closed. This also provides a better grip for cellar staff.

These aesthetic differences are why Butler calls Tonnellerie Ô’s château barrels his favorite. “They’re the Ferrari,” he says. “There’s a lot more showmanship involved.”

Chestnut hoops
Château tradition has four chestnut hoops (cerceaux de bois), two on each end, while other types of château barrels can have no hoops (château ferre, pronounced “fair”) or as many as eight, as is the case with the Burgundy tradition barrel crafted by Tonnellerie Radoux USA. Much darker than oak, the chestnut hoops are one of the most easily identifiable elements of a château barrel, but Butler says they serve a practical purpose as well.

“The wooden hoops were said to have been used as a friendly tool to control pests,” he says. “Wood-boring beetles (aka, bore bugs) love oak, and they eat a perfect hole into the barrel shell and reach the wine.…The chestnut hoops are much more soft, and the beetle loves this more than the oak.”

Winemaker Baron says the eye-catching chestnut hoops have another benefit for cellar staff: They’re easier on the hands than the galvanized steel chime hoop.

By far one of the most detailed parts of château tradition is the vime (pronounced “veem”), or thin reed wrapped by hand around the chestnut hoops on either end of the barrel. The reed is usually made from willow, and prior to application it resembles a piece of straw.

Master cooper Douglas Rennie handles these details at Seguin Moreau’s Napa Cooperage.  And for those in the cellar, the feature is even more useful: It makes a good handle for lifting barrels known to go rolling off. On the topic of barrel lifting, it should be noted that thinner staves play a role in barrel weight. Butler estimates that a thin-staved barrel weighs 95 to 100 pounds—20 or 25 pounds less than a regular export barrel.

Across each barrelhead on a château tradition is a pine crossbar (barre de fond or choubrette). Like the other details, the crossbar has a winemaking purpose that belies its appearance. For gravity-operated winemaking (and let’s face it, all winemaking was gravity-operated when these barrels came into existence), the crossbar plays a role in obtaining barrel samples.

When barrels are racked, and accessing the bunghole is a challenge, a winemaker using château tradition can push on the crossbar to express wine from the esquive (a small hole in the barrelhead that is plugged up when not in use). After sampling, the cork is simply replaced in the esquive (pronounced “es-KEEV”); no heavy lifting required.

Less and more
A thin-stave barrel with a recessed head and crossbar is called château ferre if it is made without the chestnut hoops and vime. And the Burgundy tradition is made with extra chestnut hoops but no vime.

That aside, Peltereau-Villeneuve maintains that the real beauty is what’s on the inside. “It’s not a gimmick….The key issue is what the winemaker wants to accomplish.”

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