February 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

How Big Is Your Barrel?

by Larry Walker
How Big Is Your Barrel
If you walk through the barrel room of almost any California winery you would come away with the impression that wine barrels come in one standard size. The 225-liter barrique has come to be virtually ubiquitous in both European and New World wine production. It wasn't always true, of course. No more than two or three decades ago, there were dozens of barrel sizes available, many common to a particular region or wine style.

The common story is that the 225-liter barrel, or barrique bordelaise, came into common use more than a century ago because one worker could move the barrel around (when empty) for cleaning or other tasks.

But winemakers are beginning to rethink their approach to the barrel. Traveling in Europe over the last few years, I talked to winemakers in Spain, France and Italy who were at least experimenting with larger barrels. The same thing seems to be happening in California. Barrel broker Mel Knox said that in the early 1980s, he didn't sell a single puncheon. "Now, I can't get enough of them," Knox said. (A puncheon is generally defined as a barrel holding 500 liters.) Besides the growing interest in and use of puncheons, there is also a move toward fermenting in larger oak uprights, with perhaps the best known being the construction of a new winery facility around the large tanks at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Jim Moore, the winemaker at l'Uvaggio di Giacomo in Napa, said he uses larger barrels, both 400- and 500-liter, for intermediate storage as well as long-term aging. "The 400-liter seems to adapt very well for an 18 month cycle," Moore told Wines & Vines. He particularly likes the larger barrels for Sangiovese and other Italian varieties. "We use neutral 500-liter barrels to age Nebbiolo, like the historic use for Barolo."

Moore said that Sangiovese can easily pick up too much oak flavor in smaller barrels. "In order to get the mouthfeel we want, we age it a year longer in the larger barrels," he said. "But everybody's mileage is different."

He agrees that there is a move toward the larger barrels, which he calls ABB, "anything but barrique." "People don't want to spend the money on new French oak, especially with the competitive pressure on lower priced wines." He added that he generally only uses the small format barrels when he wants overt oak flavor in "commercial wines."

"The important thing to emphasize with the large format is that you get slower maturation without drying out the fruit. The fruit character in the Italian varieties is not as effusive, so it is important that the wine has freshness and vitality and is not dried out," Moore said.

Jim Adelman at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara County said he is using Hungarian puncheons for wines made from Italian varietals. "We like the Hungarian oak and it's slightly cheaper than the French. It also seems a little more subtle than the French," he said. "Because of the volume-to-size ratio, you pick up less oak contact. You can use new puncheons and the wine doesn't taste like it has too much oak." He said that the puncheons also seem to work well with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Adelman said there is a downside to puncheons. "The racks are more expensive, and there can be a space problem. Also, of course, they are harder to deal with for racking and so on."

However, he is buying more puncheons on a regular basis. "If we were starting from the ground up, I could see making even more of a commitment to the larger barrels," he said.

Andy Erickson is a consulting winemaker in Napa who made his own wine under the Favia label, a collaboration with Annie Favia--first vintage in 2003. "I use 4-hectoliter oak fermentation tanks for the Bordeaux varieties (1 hectoliter = 26.42 gallons). I really like the early evolution of the wines. They seem to be more open and expressive when young. I've also fermented in 500- and 700-liter barrels. There is a really nice integration of wood; the wines are more open with a better color."

Erickson said he has fermented Pinot Noir in 700-liter barrels and likes the result. "Pinot is very delicate. I don't want to over-oak it." After the wine has finished fermenting in the 700-liter barrels, the skins are taken out, then the wine is returned to the barrel for aging.

Jayson Woodbridge makes Cabernet Sauvignon at Hundred Acre Vineyards in Napa and Syrah in the Barossa Valley of Australia. He ferments his Cabernet in puncheons. "The wine seems better integrated, more advanced," he said. Woodbridge, who has received consistently high scores for his wines, said because the fermenting wine is hand punched, the winemaker has more intimate contact with every small lot in the winery.

"The downside is that it's very expensive because it is very labor intensive. With 95 puncheons to take care of, the crew is often at work from 6 a.m. until about midnight. When the last puncheon is finished, it's time to start on the first," he said.

Woodbridge said the puncheons are especially useful if several passes are made through a vineyard. "We may pass through a vineyard four, five or six times so we end up with several small lots. A 4-ton lot will fit into four or five puncheons. We also have some small upright oak tanks. It gives us enormous flexibility," he said.

Another factor is heat control. The puncheons don't generate as much heat as a bigger fermentation tank. He said that even with a cooling jacket, the center of a large tank can generate enough heat to break down the cell structure of the grape, while in a puncheon there isn't enough heat to destroy potential flavor.

There is clearly a move toward puncheons and other large format barrels. Is bigger really better? Wines & Vines would be interested in your experience with larger barrels.
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