October 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Building Better Barrels

As modern American winemaking veers away from heavy oak influence, it's become more important to understand the available options for aging wine

by Stacy Briscoe

Within the last 10 years, modern winemaking has veered away from heavy oak influence. Perhaps this is because we, as a New World wine region, are only now beginning to embrace tradition, practicing Old World winemaking techniques. Or maybe we’re finally beginning to understand our definition of terroir, producing fruit, and thus wines, suitable to climate and soil. Or perhaps it’s America’s new-found foodie culture driving this trend, as consumers begin to understand wine as an ingredient to a well-rounded meal, specifically searching for wines that complement and don’t overpower the palate.

“It is the evolution of the wine consumer,” said Ron Celaya, sales representative for Demptos USA in Napa, Calif., who said, for the most part, his winemaking clients are no longer looking for the phenolic, smoky aromas that present themselves as bacon, burnt coffee and black pepper. Instead, they’re looking for what Celaya refers to as “less obvious” and “more complex” aromas, including white chocolate, potpourri and baking spice.

“Those (harsher) flavors don’t lend themselves well to food pairing,” Celaya said, adding that he’s noticed the American palate has been evolving for a while: Consumers are looking for wine that complements rather than challenges what’s created in the kitchen.

Elizabeth Van Emst, general manager at Cooperages 1912 Napa, had a similar observation, stating that, especially in the super-premium wine categories and direct-to-consumer programs, requests from her winemaking clients for lighter toasts have become much more prevalent. “Barrel demand is ultimately driven by the end consumer’s tastes. Balanced wines with complexity and length are what wine drinkers are demanding,” she said.

Celaya has also observed that American viticulture, in general, has become more balanced. “We’re getting grapes that are fresher, more vibrant with acidity. You certainly don’t want to ruin what the viticultural team has done by using strongly toasted barrels,” he said.

So, the “hype” of heavy or heavy-plus toast — which results in an abundance of char and caramelization in the wood — is long gone, according to Celaya and Van Emst. A step away from this aggressive style is a medium-long toast, a process that toasts the barrel over a smaller fire for a longer time, cooking the wood slowly yet deeply as the cooper turns the barrel more frequently to ensure harsh aromas aren’t absorbed. More Burgundian in style, Celaya said, this level of toast provides a smoother tannin structure, more spice than smoke notes, a midpalate softness, and a lengthy finish during trials with winemakers. He finds that his clients working with Cabernet are among the most likely to request this level of toast, but that a few working with Pinot Noir will also use a certain percentage of medium toast for a “pop of savory elements, a midpalate lift and velvety texture.”

Paolo Bouchard, business development manager for Bouchard Cooperages in Napa, said many of his clients are now requesting even less toast impact: light-long toast, which he explains as the same process as medium long, but with the toast taking place on an even smaller fire. “We’re seeing more and more requests for light-long toasts on delicate reds or aromatic white varietals,” Bouchard said.

Location, location, location
The flavor profile and textural influence of a barrel starts in the forest. Just as terroir influences grapevines and the resulting wines, so do different forests impart specific characteristics into the trees and, thus, the barrels.

Eric Mercier, president of Premier Wine Cask in Napa, which is the exclusive North American representative for French cooperage Tonnellerie Dargaud & Jaeglé (D&J), said that he’s seen a decrease in barrel suppliers offering forest-specific oak barrels to their clients. Instead, suppliers are focusing on grain tightness alone. But, according to Mercier, providing clients with forest-specific barrels is one of the few ways to deliver consistency year after year. “A tree grows for about 200 years, pumping minerals from the soil, being influenced by the weather,” Mercier said. “So the ‘same’ tree growing in two different environments will offer vastly different flavors.”

Bouchard said cooperages began steering away from distinguishing forest origin in barrels and moved toward grain-tightness specification after several scandals involving cooperages that promoted forest specificity, but in fact were making forest mixes or grain-tightness mixes. “It is possible to find tight grain in most forests, although some forests contain significantly higher percentages of tight grain,” he said.

Bouchard added it’s easier for boutique cooperages that have a longstanding reputation in the industry to focus more on forest origins and barrel quality. He cited Tonnellerie Billon, which produces 12,000 barrels, and Tonnellerie Damy, which makes 22,000 barrels annually, (both of which are sold by Bouchard Cooperages) among those cooperages that have continuously and reliably branded their barrels with forest-specific names. “It’s easier to work with forest-origin barrels when you are not making a gargantuan amount of barrels, just like it is easier to focus on quality when making smaller quantities,” Bouchard said.

Forest origin can trump grain tightness, Bouchard said. “Some forests are more impactful, such as Limousin or Châtillon. Other forests are more gentle, elegant and lower impact such as Tronçais, Jura or Jupilles,” he said. He noted, too, that there’s been a resurgence in cooperages working with specific forests and branding them that way, including Tonnellerie de Mercurey, Tonnellerie Rousseau and Tonnellerie Quintessence.

Bouchard also stressed that regional nuances affect the staves during the air-drying process. He explained that while the wood dries at the mill, a process typically lasting two to three years, the staves are exposed to excessive snow and rain that ultimately help wash the tannin and organoleptic material. “But the air-drying process that takes place in Cognac and Bordeaux is different than the air-drying process that takes place in Burgundy or other countries,” Bouchard said.

He cited Hungary as an example: With no bordering oceans and lack of maritime climate, Hungarian wood is aged at minimum for three years before it’s coopered because the area receives less precipitation, taking more time for the wood to be considered ready from “a coopering perspective,” he said. “And if you already have significantly less tannin and organoleptic material in the wood, as a result when you toast, you are toasting less matter so the barrel is less impactful,” Bouchard said. Therefore, some cooperages will offer barrels made with wood aged three to five years, which will have a more neutral effect on the wine.

Comparative bending methods
How a tree’s natural nuances expose themselves in the barrel and influence aging wine has to do, in part, with how staves are bent — either by fire, steam or water. “The bending method alters the distribution of inherent flavor components, helping emphasize some flavors and diminish others,” said Ed Schulz, international sales manager for Premier Wine Cask.

The process of fire-bending involves heating unbent staves over a fire pot, softening the fibers and allowing the staves to be bent into the proper shapes needed to create a wine barrel. Bouchard calls this method “the most popular and most traditional,” but, “when you fire-bend, you break more staves and the process is more time-consuming and requires greater expertise and savoir faire by the cooper,” he said.

Bouchard explained that the fire-bending process requires a cooper to constantly listen to the wood, touch the barrel and tend to the fire to effectively manipulate the staves. “There is much more touch, feeling and attentiveness … more control,” he said, “But, yes, a greater risk of nervy staves breaking.”

Mercier said D&J employs fire-bending as the primary treatment at its artisan cooperage in Moras-en-Valloire, France, but water-bending as the primary treatment at the main cooperage in Romanèche-Thorins. Water-bending, Mercier explained, involves submerging staves in water for about 20 to 25 minutes, essentially cleansing wood of tannins before bending.

While Schulz said he can’t say for certain whether one method is more “palatable” than the other, Mercier is of the opinion that the process of removing some of the harsher tannins from the oak staves with water soaking seems to add a weight to the midpalate not noticeable in fire-bent barrels.

Cooperages 1912 Napa’s Van Emst said she believes there is some truth to the claim that water-bending creates a more minimal oak influence due to the tannin extraction during the soaking process. She noted that, when combined with a light toasting regime, it’s an ideal option for those looking for a softer, rounder mouthfeel and less oaky characteristics.

Steam-bending is a less aggressive stave-bending method that involves quick exposure to extremely hot steam, opening the pores of the staves to eliminate excess tannin. But, according to Bouchard, because of those open pores, toasting tends to go deeper inside the wood. “If you take a fire-bent and steam-bent barrel and compare them side by side, the steam-bent barrel usually smells and tastes more neutral because it has been ‘neutralized’ one last time before toasting,” he said. “However, if you cut a cross section of the stave … the toast typically has gone a little bit deeper” in the steam-bent barrel.

Oak-specific aroma technology
At Cooperages 1912 Napa, coopers are utilizing infrared technology instead of fire-toasting for the company’s World Cooperage line, Van Emst said. She said that using infrared waves to toast the barrels to the desired temperatures enhances the wood’s aromas and flavors without adding smoke attributes. Van Emst said the infrared-toasted barrel line has proven hugely popular for the cooperage.

The technology also allows the coopers to create specific, consistent and repeatable barrels year after year: The “reflection” barrel is designed specifically to “reflect” fruit flavors back into the wine; the “dimension” barrel uses a wave-like surface that provides a slightly higher impact, yet remains subtle in the aromas and textures imparted on the aging wine. This, Van Emst said, plays into the current trend of winemakers demanding both complexity and subtlety in barrels, even when seeking higher impact.

“Our R&D team closely partner with winemakers to continually push our collective knowledge of oak science and develop new flavor, aroma and texture combinations that will meet each winemaker’s specific goals,” Van Emst said. “So we have an entire recipe library that continues to grow, giving winemakers the options they need to find the perfect match of barrel to wine and meet these market demands.”

Chris Hansen, sales manager for Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage in Napa, said the trend he’s seeing is more winemakers interested in his company’s research into wood chemistry and its ICÔNE series of barrels.

Hansen said that Seguin Moreau’s research and development team conducts a chemical analysis of individual logs at the stave mills to help understand the wood’s potential before production. The analysis, he said, isn’t necessarily forest-specific, but is more about the grain sizes and chemical makeup of each individual log. “When you cut down a tree, the grains are different at different levels of the tree,” Hansen said.

While he wouldn’t divulge the exact technology the R&D team utilizes, Hansen explained that focusing on the wood at the molecular level has allowed them to find the specific correlation between chemical compounds, such as tannins and phenolics, and a barrel’s resulting aroma and flavor impact. This information then helps them organize specific, reproducible results in their oak barrels.

This means barrels are made with the specificity and consistency winemakers are looking for, Hansen said. Seguin Moreau’s current barrel selection under the ICÔNE series includes ICÔNE Blanc, intended for high-end white wines; ICÔNE Finesse, for high-end delicate red wines; ICÔNE Elegance, for red wines with high concentration of polyphenols; and ICÔNE Low Aroma and Elevation, for high-concentration red wines.

But, Hansen said, there are often crosses between the recommended barrels. For example, while ICÔNE Finesse is technically more suitable for Pinot Noir or Gamay, he said he has clients working with Cabernet Sauvignon who use this barrel, looking for a lower, more subtle flavor profile. A few Russian River Pinot Noir producers opt for ICÔNE Elegance in an effort to subdue the fruit, which tends to be quite ripe.

Seguin Moreau has also expanded the toasting range within the ICÔNE series in the past few years, according to Hansen. He said that while the company has its suggested toast levels for each style, usually medium or medium-plus, the cooperage toasts usually have a strong vanilla and toasty impact. “We developed what we call open toasting where we do not use a lid to trap heat and smoke inside the barrel during the final toasting that reduces the amount of vanillin created and toasty/smoky aromas,” Hansen said. The company refers to these toast levels as long open or medium extra-long open.

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