Does Barrel Fermentation Improve Red Wine?

Three veteran winemakers offer real-life experiences with the practice

by Paul Franson
wines vines oak conference red barrel fermentation
Red barrel fermentation requires popping off a barrel head or an extra-large hole for introducing wine grapes.

Santa Rosa, Calif.—Though it’s common to ferment Chardonnay wines in oak barrels to impart texture and flavor—and fermenting reds in large upright wooded casks was once standard—fermenting red wines in oak barrels is a fairly new practice.

The reason is simple: It can be a lot of work—and expensive.

Winemakers either have to remove one of the barrel heads, ask an expert to do it or buy special barrels with large openings to insert berries or clusters. Emptying and cleaning the barrels is more difficult than the same operation with white juice and wine.

In spite of this, some winemakers are experimenting with fermenting red wines in barrels for the same reasons they do for white wines: flavor, texture and complexity, not to ignore bragging rights.

The practice was the subject of a discussion and tasting at the recent Wines & Vines Oak Conference held April 26 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

Moderated by the magazine’s senior editor, Andrew Adams, the session featured three winemakers with varied experience fermenting red wine in wood: Bob Blue, director of winemaking and winery operations at Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, Calif; David Jeffrey of Calluna Vineyards in the Chalk Hill AVA of Sonoma County, and Andy Schweiger of Schweiger Vineyards and Winery in St. Helena, Calif.

Blue noted that Fetzer used to do in-barrel red fermentations under Dennis Martin, its former winemaker. “In 1982, Diana Fetzer started (the practice) when Chardonnay fermentation in barrel was new. She thought it might work well for Pinot Noir, too, and they did it for 22 years.”

The company had an advantage, as it owned a cooperage then, too.

Blue presented wines that are components of Sanctuary Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County, Calif.) fermented in open-top barrels.

It contrasted two lots: a Pommard clone planted in 1973 and clone 667 planted in 2002. Since some of the winery’s workers knew how to work with barrels, they removed one barrel head without damage; Blue said it took about 20 minutes.

The grapes were picked at night and arrived with dry ice chilling the clean, whole berries, which were used to fill barrels and stainless steel.

A bucket of dry ice was added to both stainless steel and open-top barrels They corrected the sugar with water and tartaric acid.

Grapes from the Pommard clone started at 27.2° Brix and the 667 at 28.3° Brix with TA of 6.8 g/L and 6.3 g/L, respectively. They corrected the must to 24.5° Brix with water and TA to about 7.7 g/L.

The barrels were inoculated after a three-day cold soak, but the tanks started fermenting spontaneously five days after heating and peaked at 85° F. The barrels reached 0.8 g/L residual sugar at nine days and were tipped to extract the must and grapes for draining and pressing.

The tank took 12 days to reach 0.5 g/L of sugar.

Both lots were pressed in a Marzola basket press. The tank lots went into clean barrels (some new), while the barrels used for fermenting were cleaned to remove flour paste after they were emptied and had the heads reinstated, then filled with the barrel-fermented wine.

The wine spent 209 days in barrel or stainless and reached 14.3% alcohol and 5.8-5.9 g/L of TA with pH of 3.62 (barrel) and 3.5 (stainless tank).

The barrel-fermented samples seemed more spicy and peppery, and they were more viscous. The stainless sample seemed better balanced, but of course each will be blended.

Jeffrey of Calluna Vineyards first experimented red wine fermentation in 2002 with Allen Griot in Bordeaux, a pioneer with the practice. They used special barrels with large openings and roller racks that allowed them to be rotated.

One barrel had a glass head for observation. Jeffrey admits that the process was “jerry rigged” and involved dumping the juice into a bucket and extracting the skins by hand.

Jeffrey repeated the process at Calluna with eight to 10 barrels.

He noted: “It was dramatic when you opened the barrel, with mostly juice spewing out along with some skins.” The skins were removed with a small rake.

He summarized the benefits of red wine barrel fermentation:

•    Good integration of oak into the wine
•    Early exposure of oak
•    Exposure to oak in the heat of fermentation
•    Exposure to oak in the aqueous phase pre-fermentation
•    A significant amount of oak character in the wine
•    Sets good color
•    Depth of flavor through submerged cap
•    Allows longer fermentation
•    Tannins integrate, but lots of tannin

Andy Schweiger of Schweiger Vineyards & Winery experimented with open-top barrels in 2014, then worked with the Perle egg or tear drop-shaped fermentors in the 2015 harvest, comparing wine fermented in T-bins to fermentation in Perle de Quintessence fermentors.

He said he didn’t find the Perles suitable for aging, as the narrow top caused wine to evaporate quickly.

He said that analysis showed lower concentrations of seed tannins and an increase in polymerized anthocyanins by fermenting in the wooden Perles.

During the 2016 harvest, Schweiger wanted to compare fermenting in Perles to traditional 225-liter barrels with their heads removed.

All were 100% estate Cabernet Sauvignon from their “Montaire Block,” and all were harvested Sept. 23 at 26.9° Brix. The pH was 3.78 and TA 6.4 g/L.

The fruit was destemmed, hand-sorted and divided between five different trial lots:

•    Control (stainless steel): 1.8 ton
•    2015 “one vintage used” Perle fermentor: two 0.8 ton
•    2016 “new” Perle fermentor: two 0.8 ton
•    2016 Demptos “Reserve” medium-plus toasted barrels with their heads removed: four 0.9 ton
•    2016 Quintessence barrel, custom to match wood selection and toast level of Perle barrels: four 0.9 ton

He measured a few statistical differences in the phenolic analyses of these wines: The catechins/tannin index or “seediness” ranged for 0.027 in the Perle de Quintessence to 0.029 in the open-top barrels to 0.037 in the stainless control sample.

The polymeric anthocyanins/tannin index that tracked softness/roundness ranged from 0.071 in stainless to 0.076 in both oak trials. ETS Laboratories provided the analysis of the wines presented during the conference.

He would like to try a trial in a concrete egg, too.

He noted that the size of the container did seem to matter, but it he was not sure that shape played a role.

Schweiger noted that visitors loved the Perles. “It’s good for marketing,” he admitted.

Schweiger admits that this was only one trial done in one replicate by one very small winery. He recommends other winemakers conduct the own trials: “Ask questions, share with your peers, ask more questions, strive for perfection, join the dialogue. Get outside people to taste your trials.”

He added, “If think you’re too small to afford quality analysis, team up with other wineries, and get suppliers and the media involved.”

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