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By Heather Pyle, Ilsley Vineyards Winemaker

Every wine enthusiast knows that the use of new oak barrels as aging vessels adds flavors to wine.  The nuances and the breadth of these flavors are less obvious and vary by the choice of cooper (barrel maker), the source of the wood, and the choice the winemaker makes by choosing to which wine he or she applies these flavors. Also, what is often unknown or overlooked by the modern wine drinker is the original purpose of the barrel as a transport vessel but not actually as a flavor contributor.

A Little History
Since well before Christ’s time, barrels were originally fashioned as transport vessels to be put aboard ships and ox drawn carts for commerce.  They replaced clay amphorae for a number of reasons:  They roll even when full, they don’t leak or allow much evaporation and perhaps incidentally, they are good insulators, keeping the wine or whiskey at a relatively stable temperatures even in warm conditions like the Mediterranean Sea in summer.  An added benefit is that they can last many, many years.  So, through the ages barrels were not meant to add flavor probably but used to keep the wine safe on its way to a consumer near or far.  Before transporting wine to its final destination in the days prior to the 20th century wine would have been aged in much larger containers, casks or vats, for efficiency and because oak flavor was not on the consumer or producers mind.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century up to the present day and particularly in wine producing areas considered “New World” like the US, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.  Mechanization and advanced fabrication allows us to use just about any container we see fit for wine but winemaking is tied to history and the wine barrel and its distant relative, the wine cork, are still strong players in the wine industry today.  Oak barrels are no longer necessary for their original purpose of transport but they make very handy aging vessels.  Also,  in the past 30 years at least, flavor from oak barrels has become a key factor in stylish and expensive wines.  Indeed, we think of wine now as having oak flavors as part of its profile in many if not most cases.

Experience and Decision Making
So wine barrels add flavor, or at least new wine barrels do. Do they all add the same flavors?  No, they don’t.  The nuances that a barrel contributes to a wine is one of the holy grails of winemaking.  The possibilities are endless owing to the variations in the oak itself and the wine aged in it.  What is a winemaker to do then when wanting to add the best flavors to wine in their use of oak?  Honestly, the choices are daunting and each winemaker finds his or her own way in pairing a given wine with a given barrel made by a given cooper and harvested from a given forest on a given continent.  My personal viewpoint is that since the combinations of wine to wood are almost limitless and new barrels come on the market every year, now even from China, having a mentor and a professional playground on which to test many of the variations is very helpful.  I’m happy to say that I had both and what I learned, tasted and observed in my early career about the effect of new oak on different lots of wine built the foundation for my use of oak today.  Working for a large but experimental winery early in my career allowed me to select barrels from different coopers and different forests in different countries on a single wine to experience the effect of the barrel in isolation.  In an average year we would use 30 different coopers and two barrels from each cooper would be used on a single wine.  This wine would be aged and each pair of barrels would be meticulously kept separate until, after 18 months we would taste the wines blind.  A group of 6-8 winemakers would discuss the merits of each barrel’s effect on this one wine.  This process repeated for 10 or more years helped me to see the variation in barrels and how they affect one Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  This built a useful foundation from which to build on by it was by no means exhaustive.  The rest of how I have applied barrels to wine has been by instinct, practice and observation.

Ilsley Vineyards Wine Barrels
Now for  some thoughts on how I approach the Ilsley wines when it comes to choosing oak types and the amount of new oak I think is appropriate to highlight the superb fruit grown at Ilsley Vineyards:  First, I take stock of the very young wine just after harvest:  dark, rich, tannic and relatively high in acid.  Lots of personality but needing to be drawn out to bring fruit intensity to the finished wine.  A little rounding of the tannins but very little is needed.  These wines are big but don’t need to be fixed, hidden, supported or suppressed.  The oak should never stand in the way of the fruit.  The fruit aromas and flavors from the best Stag’s Leap vineyards has a purity and focus that I want to showcase.   When I came to Ilsley I had my favorite cooper and barrel style:  medium toast, center of France, cooper select, thin stave meaning the barrel is thinner than some and allows more air to the wine over time.  I tried this favorite barrel on the most classic of the Ilsley vineyard lots.  It didn’t work very well.  It was too meek, lost in the boldness of the Ilsley Stag’s Leap style and concentration.  It frankly would be a waste of money because it was lost in the fruit.  But having tried it gave me some new ideas about what would work.  Something bolder, usually more toasted but not much more, meatier, still French of course and still Center of France for a medium grain.  Ilsley wines I know now work better with a thicker stave barrel for fruit preservation and I open the wines up over time by racking them (moving them out of the barrels periodically to breath and then putting them back).  The vanilla of lightly toasted barrels is a bit too wimpy but medium plus is usually the ticket.  I don’t want the consumer to say ‘nice oak’.  I want the oak to lift the fruit, not appear oaky so roughly half the barrels in a given vintage are new, the other half are ‘once used’ which means they still impart oak flavor but less that when they were brand new.  Then it comes down to the cooper.  Each cooper has its own style of course.  The variations from cooper to cooper can be vast and usually have to be tried to be understood.  Some are wood fired for the toast inside the barrel and as a source of heat to bend the barrel.  Some are steam bent and then toasted over a fire just to give a couple of examples of how each house differs.

Additional Considerations
Finally let me sum up with a list of the variations we winemakers consider in a barrel:

  • Country:  French or American (or Hungarian but those are French-like for our purposes).  French trees are sustainably farmed in managed forests, due to the cooler climate they grow more slowly and are tighter grained.  They must be split, not sawn and there is much waste.  American barrels grow in a warmer climate and are a different species.  They can be split and have a wider grain which generally means you get more intense (and different) flavors.

  • Outward appearance:  A barrel is most likely to be sound (not leak or have other inconsistencies) if it is well made so barrels I would be proud to have in my living room and which look perfectly smooth and evenly toasted inside are most desireable.

  • Air Dried vs Kiln Dried:  Some cooperages age their wood before milling it for use in barrels outside.  The best, most expensive barrels have had their oak aged for at least 3 years outdoors in the sleet, rain, sun and wind.  Others, to save on expense, dry the wood in an oven.  The difference in flavor is remarkable and the air dried is much preferred for its subtlety and ability to integrate with the wine.

  • American vs French:  I touched on this before but American oak barrels give more flavor and it often tends toward a spice like dill.  The affect is often very ‘in your face’.   All of France’s oak is very tightly grained owing to the cool climate and this makes the flavor profile more subtle that barrels from America.

  • Forest differences within France:  France prides itself on its (heavily subsidized) government run, sustainable oak forests for barrels.  The flavor differences are subtle but can be noticeable and many winemakers choose to match a forest to each of their wines.

  • Stave Thickness:  The thickness of the barrel used to depend on whether that barrel was used for transporting the wine (thicker) or aging it in a cellar (thinner) however New World winemakers, who want oak flavor, have learned that the thickness affects the oak/wine interaction by affecting the amount of air passing through the wood (more in thinner barrels) during the aging time.  Thicker barrels often preserve more fruit but can leave the wines less developed and complex as well.

  • Barrel size:  almost all of us use 225 liter sized barrels.  This is about 59 gallons (25 cases of wine) but varies from cooper to cooper and wine stave thickness.  500L barrels (called puncheons) are desirable in some cases and even much larger casks but any variation in aging vessel results in adjustments needing to be made in the cellar to accommodate these different sizes.  The larger the container the lower the wood to wine ratio and therefore the less impact the oak will have on the wine on a per gallon basis.

  • Cooper:  By this I mean the cooperage house, not the individual artisan.  First of all American barrels are coopered to a different shape than Burgundy barrels and Bordeaux barrels are different again.  These names define the shapes in this modern age and not strictly where the barrel was made and the difference are subtle and really don’t affect the flavors at all but they can affect the chaos in the cellar.   Coopers also have house styles when it comes to toast level and toasting technique which can strongly affect the wine it touches.  One cooper’s medium toast might be more like medium plus somewhere else.

  • Mechanization:  Almost all cooperage houses are at least partially mechanized these days.  It is important to have some human intervention to be sure the barrel is sound and doesn’t fall apart or leak.  Many of the most reputable houses use mechanization to speed up the process and avoid injury but balance that with a lot of hands on crafting to be sure each barrel is finished like a fine piece of furniture

  • Price:  Naturally there are price differences among coopers and French barrels are almost double the price of American barrels in large part because they are made from split wood, not sawn wood and that process produces a lot of waste.  That said, a French barrel will often cost about $1000 when new, more if it is from over 3 years air dried wood or has other embellishes like willow hoops on the outside.  An American barrel is more like $400 when new.  Except for barrels being made in a country not historically known for oak barrels (China for example but also Hungary) the pricing can be significantly cheaper.  Surprisingly however, within France and the US producers price varies very little by cooper.

  • Wood Type:  I have talked only about oak barrels because that is by far the predominant wood used for oak for wine.  There are chestnut and cherry barrels out there and probably even eucalyptus but they would be few and far between and used more as a conversation point than for a technical reason.  Oak is king for flavor, integrity and longevity.