In all the many years Barbara Walters has asked the question, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” you’ve got to wonder why none of the celebrities ever answered, “Why a white oak, of course! Then I could live out the rest of my years as a wine barrel, soaking in the heavenly fermenting juices while imparting my unique qualities to the elixir of the gods!”
French white oak may not be the only tree species favored by winemakers to enhance their wines’ unique flavors, but it certainly is one of the most preferred due to its unique characteristics. After all, with the price of a new barrel now topping $1,000, they’d better start with some of the finest wood on the planet!
The finest wines have long been associated with barrel aging to impart the most desirable flavors, from spices, such as cinnamon or clove, to heavier notes like tobacco and cocoa, and even sweeter tastes like vanilla. Wine barrels have been around for well over two thousand years, and even then the Romans were envious of the fabulous wines that came from their Gallic (French) territories.
THE ADVANTAGES OF THE BARREL
Why barrels? Let’s see … could it have something to do with ease of transport? They’re rounded, easy to move and stack for storage – particularly at around 140 lbs. empty. That makes getting the product to the end user a lot easier. Due to the stress put on the staves (the 30 or so wooden boards that make up the bulging, cylindrical barrel sides), like the curves in a wooden boat, the container is extremely well-sealed and unlikely to leak or break. Yes, barrels offered many advantages to the marketplace over their predecessors, heavy clay amorphae.
The ancient art of barrel-making has been passed down, in many cases, for generations. A Master Cooper spends many years learning his craft, from stave selection and assembly to the final planing and finish sanding of a completed barrel.
FROM TREE TO TOASTING
Perhaps surprisingly, according to Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, only four percent of a tree’s wood actually makes the grade (literally) to become a barrel. Fine cooperage begins with tree selection. And that means the finest oaks grow in the center of France—in such famous forests as Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges. In these forests (strictly controlled by the French government for quality and sustainability), trees are carefully chosen for their second act in life as a wine barrel by their shape, height and growing conditions, as well as grain.
Seguin Moreau begins harvesting the trees used in barrels at approximately 100 to 125 years of age, but some aren’t harvested until they’ve reached the ripe age of 200! And given that such a small percentage of the tree makes it to the final round as a barrel, each tree produces only enough wood to make three barrels. (The remainder of the tree’s wood isn’t wasted—part goes to furniture, railroad ties, etc., as well oak chips and loose staves used inside tanks and vats.)
Once harvested, Seguin Moreau’s barrel-bound wood is hand sawn, quartered and stacked in tiers for outdoor “seasoning.” This process of aging the wood for at least two years, ensures the barrels don’t leak later on. During the passage of time, the wood’s aromatics begin to emerge as moisture evaporates, leaving behind favorable sugars and reducing harsh tannins. Eventually, it all gets nicely toasted over a fire. But I’m getting ahead of the story in the plot.
LA HAUTE TONNELLERIE
You’ve heard of Haute Cuisine and Haute Couture? (It’s funny how the French always seem to have a corner on the bestfoods and high fashion.) Seguin Moreau epitomizes La Haute Tonnellerie – the best in wine barrel-making – turning in Oscar-worthy performances with each barrel produced. (Tonneau is barrel in French.)
As the show begins, the cooper selects and assembles the staves, ringing the primary (chime) hoop of a new barrel with the chosen boards. This process is known as the “mise en rose” or “raising of the barrel.” Next, additional hoops are added to hold and tighten the staves in place.
In the next scene, the art of fine cooperage truly comes into play as the unfinished barrel is then subjected to heat (fire) and fine sprays of water to make the staves pliable and then to bend into shape. Master coopers carefully inspect the barrel joints to ensure they line up perfectly—no leaks allowed. After the barrel toasts and the ends are crozed, the heads (sealed with river reed between the joints) are inserted.
FROM LIGHT TO DARK TOAST
The toasting (“bousinage” at Seguin Moreau) of a barrel is an art form onto itself. There are more than four separate levels of toasting from light to heavy, each of which brings out the barrel’s own aromatics,and thus influencing the wine’s final flavors.
The art of accurate barrel toasting varies throughout the day due to temperature, climate, humidity and other factors. Thus, use of a simple egg-timer to gauge the amount of toasting would never be possible to produce the best and most consistent quality of toasting from one barrel to the next with so many variables at play (though a cooperage will have clocks that track the toasting time!)
BARREL USE IN THE WINERY
Having prepared all of its life to become the vessel in which delectable wines mature, the new barrel arrives at the winery ready to take the stage. It gets a brief dress rehearsal in which its joints are tested by being filled with water—this allows the wood to swell together, ensuring no wine seeps through the grain. And having been judged worthy to serve its role, the barrel is then filled to capacity (approx. 60 gallons, or 25 cases) through the bung hole.
From time to time, the clear silicone bung is removed by the winemaker to check on aging and to rack the wine. Often a small portion of the wine has disappeared. Known as the Angel’s Share, the small amount of evaporation from the barrel always happens, no matter how tightly it is sealed. Higher temperatures increase water evaporation; higher humidity increases alcohol evaporation.
Perhaps the most important factor in evaporation is the quality of the wood. Tighter, straight wood grains slow evaporation. However, the winemaker doesn’t wish to eliminate evaporation altogether, as it is the oxygen working its way through the wood that imparts the finer qualities to the wine. Very, very tight wood grain would take a very long time to release aromatics and toast into the wine. (3-4 years of aging your Cabernet? No thanks!)
Upon inspection, using a wine thief to withdraw a sample from the barrel, the winemaker has the barrel topped off once again (to ensure the great amount of surface contact of the wine to the wood) and the bung is replaced.
Wineries replace a percentage of their barrels every year. Winemakers often use a blend of wine from both older and new barrels to achieve the flavor and aromatic profiles of their finished product. After two to three uses, a barrel is generally considered to be “neutral” in imparting its own aromatics and flavoring. And after five years, barrels take their final curtain call, retiring to become planters, yard furniture and other creative products for the home, having fulfilled their duty in service to create the finest of wines.
To learn more about the fine art of cooperage, join us on Bastille Day, July 14th, at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, for a special presentation with its President and CEO, François Peltereau-Villeneuve. Details on reserving your spot here.
You can also read more about cooperage in this article in the Napa Valley Register. And many thanks to Lynae Anderson for her assistance on this article.