Barrels & Wine Part I
By Charles Williams (Winemaker)
Barrels play an instrumental (although supporting role) in crafting complex, well rounded and integrated wines. First and foremost, it is important to remember that great wine is made from beautiful grapes, and that the final product should reflect the superiority and integrity of the grapes and terroir and not the effect of an oak tree…
The topic of barrel craftsmanship is complex and quality gets influenced by numerous factors including:
1) Selection of Wood:
When looking for the right oak to age wine in it is important to look for oak that grows very slowly. Slow growing oak has a finer grain which means it is more porous. Hence the reason French oak is used to age most premium wines. Finer grain wood is more porous, allowing for greater micro oxygenation and better development of the wine, it impacts more on aroma contribution, and less on tannin contribution to the wine, resulting in more aromatic wines, with a soft elegant tannin structure.
2) Seasoning of wood
After the trees get felled, the trunk goes through a few processes of being portioned, split and sawed; eventually resulting in even sized wood staves. These staves are then stacked in the coopers seasoning yard to be seasoned in full contact of the elements. Rain is a physical element that helps to leach the hard and unpleasant tannins out of the wood. The suns heat helps reduce the moisture content in the staves, making it ready for coopering and during the natural seasoning of the staves, studies have shown, that beneficiary fungi develops in the wood, changing the wood composition for the better.
For our wines at De Toren, we want only the finest of tannins and the best aromatic influences possible. To get this, we only get staves that have been subjected to 24 months or longer natural seasoning in selected locations to produce our barrels from.
3) Toasting levels:
The final major influence on barrel quality is the toasting of the wood. The reason you toast the wood with heat is to break down the tannins in the wood. Toasting is a fine art and all the different coopers will have their own exact toasting levels.
Wood contains certain key compounds: hemicellulose, lignin and ellagtannins to name a few. The way in which these get degraded (in the case of toasting, with heat) will determine the subsequent compounds formed thereafter. To give three simple examples: Tannins start degrading at temperatures of above 120˚C. The longer above that temperature, the less tannins remains in the wood. Now, at 180 ˚C, Hemicellulose starts degrading, which forms the toasty character (something you do not want too much of), the longer above 180 ˚C the more intense the toasty impact will be.
Again the key for us at De Toren is to showcase the natural bouquet and structure of the wine, we believe that the strength of our wines lies in its finesse. As such we always get subtle toasting levels as not to impart any “artificial” wood characters to our wines.
Barrels & Wine Part II
By Charles Williams (Winemaker)
So now the question: How do we go about getting the right wine into the barrel that is perfectly suited to that specific wine?
Barrel aging can, in its simples form be compared to making a good cup of tea. First you have the choice of kind of tea you want to make i.e. Rooibos, Earl Grey, Ceylon… all of the aforementioned teashas a very distinctive and unique sensory profile.
Thekind of tea used can be compared to a specific Cooper; from the wood he sources, to the way he implements his seasoning and finally his toasting you will get unique sensory attributes from those barrels.
To bring this back to choice of coopers/ barrels for a specific wine: say you need more aroma contribution and limited tannin contribution to your wine, you will use a cooper which signature is light, elegant styled barrels; again, if you have a big, bold wine, you will have to enhance/compliment the wine with a more expressive barrel thus using a more “flamboyant” cooperage.
Now like making a cup of tea, the effect of the tea leaves gets more pronounced, the longer you let the tea brewing. Same goes for aging wine in a specific barrel, the longer you leave the wine to age in the barrel, the more influence the barrel will have on that wine. It is up to the winemaker to monitor this interaction and establish the perfect time to rack the wine out of the barrel, to achieve seamless integration and complexity.
We do not use a barrel only once (this yearly cycles are referred to as fill, i.e. 1st fill, 2nd fill), in its first year of being filled with wine, the wine will extract more of the barrels influence. Using that barrel for a second period, it can be expected that much less of the woods influence will be extracted. The third cycle of use, the effect of the wood is almost not noticeable and only the positive effects of micro oxygenation of the wine through the barrel staves remain.
Bringing this back to choice of fill: if you have a big, structured wine you would like to use more new barrels on that wine as the expressive nature of a new barrel will compliment this wine, For more elegantly structured and less expressive wines (think Merlot) one has to be MUCH more careful in choice of cooper and fill of barrel as not to overpower the finesse of the cultivar, with the attributes of the barrels, the better choice here is a second, or even a third fill barrel.
All De Torens vineyards are situated in the Polkadraai area of Stellenbosch with full vistas of the ocean. This unique mesoclimate allows us to harvest our grapes at full physiological ripeness, meaning fine, ripe tannins and expressive aromas, as such we will normally opt for new barrels as well as good second fill barrels for the more subtle cultivars.
Wines are as individual as ones children, and something that works for the one is not necessarily going to work for the next, It all comes down to your vision for the end product, combined with past experience and intuition (plus of coarse lots of tasting) to get the art of barrel maturation spot on!!!