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Sniffing barrels before harvest (better than sniffing glue…)

Melissa and I were just sniffing through a bunch of new barrels we have chosen for the upcoming harvest, and I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot down some random thoughts about barrels. I have spent lots of time in my career doing barrel trials; I used to travel to Burgundy and Bordeaux several times every year to seek out new coopers, select barrels, and fill containers to bring back (Jackson Family Wines had a slightly larger travel budget than little ol’ Ancient Oak has!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I’d love to chat with you all more about this — and Melissa is working on inviting some of you to join us for barrel tasting and blending trials this winter before we do our first racking, when we can really get a sense of how the barrels and the new wines are behaving together. Please shoot me an email if you’d like to be a part of this with us.

Barrels are not all created equally — there are barrels that have looser grain and some with tighter grain; generally speaking tighter grain is thought to be higher quality and it certainly is more expensive. It’s slower growing wood and there’s less of it, but the looser grain has its charms as well, especially in skilled Burgundian coopers’ hands. Burgundian coopers as opposed to Bordeaux coopers tend to use more smoke and heat and more deeper toasting or sometimes even as far as a little bit of char versus the Bordeaux barrels,; which are much more lightly toasted. In fact, we were looking at the difference between a Burgundy cooper today for a Pinot and Chard and a Bordeaux cooper for all of our Bordeaux varietals up on Sonoma Mountain, and looking inside indeed the Bordeaux Cooper is supposed to be a medium plus toast, but it’s actually a lot lighter than even the medium toast from the Burgundy cooper. A lot of that has to do with a broader range of grain tightness, but also deeper toast but and also putting what they call a “hat” on the barrel, which increases the amount of smoke that’s pushed into the wood rather than just coming right up through and out the barrel before the head is put on.

Now I’ve had folks say that it seems kind of counter-intuitive to put a deeper toast on barrels for Chard and Pinot, which are more delicate varietals than the Bordeaux varietals, so I want to address that. I think the contribution to mouthfeel that is derived from barrels (and, for us, the interactions with the lees that we leave in the Chard and even some in the Pinot) is more important in these varietals, while a lot of the mouthfeel of Bordeaux varietals is derived from the strength of the skin tannins. Most Bordeaux varietals have more than twice the tannic equivalents that Pinot does, and certainly lot more than Chardonnay. Chardonnay likes to have a little bit more perceived sweetness, and even though we are bottling our wines bone-dry without any extra residual sugar, if you caramelize the wood sugar on your barrels that does give you a little bit more perception of sweetness or roundness to the wine. And finally, the higher toast components are probably more compatible with Pinot and Chardonnay than with Bordeaux varietals because they have not just that cassis and other of those kind of red berry aromas, but also pyrazines, which are chemical compounds that have a quality that does not play so well with the the smoke that you get from a Burgundy barrel.

Thinking about forest sources a bit, the forests surrounding Bordeaux are actually are quite fertile if you think of the area — with some really big oak trees with really broad grains, while around Burgundy it’s quite hilly or mountainous, with then beautiful valleys scattered between. For example, we’ve been choosing some some barrels from Vosges, which is mountainous and so it has a really great combination of both loose and tight grain staves in their barrels — the tight grained staves coming from trees grown on hillsides that grow very slowly, producing much tighter grain, and the wider grain staves coming from down in the valley where it’s easier there for the tree to grow, producing wide grain.

We use some of our best or strongest Pinot barrels for our our estate program particularly those lots that go into our reserve Pinot, the Alcman. These lots not only can handle new oak that has a little bit more toast to it, but they actually kind of demand it, because their tannins are bigger — the whole wine is just a bigger overall volume so you want to have barrels that can kind of match that. For our Bordeaux program we use a number of thinner staved, so-called Chateau Ferre barrels. Those staves are between 18 and 22 mm thick, whereas standard barrels are 24 to even 28 mm thick. If you don’t fine your Cabernet, as we don’t, it needs more breathing, so these thin-staved barrels will actually respire more and be more of a participant in the polymerization of tannins and other phenolic materials.

All of this makes much more sense when you taste through a bunch of different barrels used in the same wine — and experience for yourself how the barrels and wine play together. So please let me know if you’d like to come dip a thief into a barrel and taste and discuss this with us.


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