By: Gerald Dlubala
Whether the choice is wood, stainless steel or a hybrid combination, barrel makers have unique processes they follow to provide the best possible vessel to their customers. Each type of barrel has had successful wines poured from them. The key is to be consistent in supplying a quality barrel to the customer so that they may, in turn, deliver a quality product to their consumers.
The Certainty Of Science: Trust Cooperage
“We apply science to craft,” says James Molnar, President of Trust Cooperage. Exclusively an oak barrel crafter, Trust cooperage uses predominantly Hungarian Oak in their manufacturing process. They are the largest cooperage East of France, with lab services and a quartet of technicians that look at, study and evaluate wine daily. Additionally, they have a wine cellar on premises to regularly perform wine trials and experiments using their barrels.
“When looking for a quality barrel supplier, it’s critical to look for consistency, the credibility of the oak staves used, control over their oak resources, employees with a lab or technical background, and a consistent and reliable stave supply chain,” Molnar says. “You want someone with a well-informed, quality background working with you, not a career salesman that just happens to be selling barrels.”
Trust has that control over their supply chain, with the ability to screen all components going into their barrels. Their Hungarian oak barrels are crafted only from interior split wood and aged a minimum of two to three years. The staves are organized and stacked loosely on a custom-built concrete pad in a clean, pristine, and breezy location for maximum ventilation, easy rotation and natural seasoning in the sun, wind and rain. Aging them this way purges the harsh tannins and other impurities before they get preheated for shaping and toasted to the desired level of aroma and flavors needed. Everything is stringently controlled, including the temperature, time and exposure to flame. The finishing is controlled by hand before the barrel is closed and pressure tested.
“Our wine barrels are definitely made to last,” says Molnar. “They average a lifespan of three to four aging cycles within the winery before being repurposed into beer barrels, scotch barrels or casks for Caribbean rums. We use our carbon filtered well-water and Airocide units to wash and sterilize the barrels. Then they’re stored in a pristine, climate-controlled atmosphere year-round until wrapped for shipment to our customers.”
Trust also provides oak for alternative methods of fermenting and aging, usually in stainless-steel tanks. They supply staves, wood chips, wooden bullets and wooden pass through sticks to achieve different effects in neutral barrels and fermentation tanks.
Technology And Tradition: East Coast Wood Barrels
George Voicu, Master Cooper of East Coast Wood Barrels, stresses balance in his wood shop, barrel making, and in life. His approach to coopering is a blend between traditional craftsmanship and personally customized technology.
“As a first step in our barrel supply process, we take time to communicate with our customers, assessing their needs and providing suitable product recommendations. Then, the shop utilizes the tools and processes that I have modified and refined through my years of experience. I remain hands on to ensure that only quality materials are included in our barrel assembly process,” says Voicu. “In the final stages, the barrel bending, toasting and charring are all accomplished using a natural wood fire and bellows system. Rounding out our extreme and traditional craftsmanship qualities is the ability to finish the barrel off with custom laser engraving.”
Voicu sources his American white oak, which he calls his foundation, from local mills around Virginia, central Pennsylvania, and New York, while sticking to the Carpathian basin and Transylvania regions of Romania for his European and Hungarian oak supply.
“Wooden barrels have that ability to breathe and oxygenate the contents,” says Voicu. “That unique ability imparts an unmistakable finishing quality in wines that consumers recognize and appreciate. Our barrels are suited for all varietals because of our willingness to use a variety of woods, and their structural integrity far outlasts the wood’s inherent finishing capacity, which ultimately led to my patented wood-stainless hybrid barrel system.”
“Stainless tank and keg systems typically attempt to shut out the outside atmosphere, where a traditional wood barrel breathes. This fact is both blessing and curse,” says Voicu, “as wood barrel oxygenation promotes the chemical reactions in maturation and finish those producers want, yet also threatens longer-storage (vintage) wines with spoilage. Our stainless-steel hybrid system is a secure, workable, and easy to clean solution which promotes in-barrel micro-oxygenation through a traditional wood head; the hybrid design reduces exposure to the outside environment but does not eliminate it. Our hybrid clients also appreciate the flexibility of the removable wood inserter system, where wood to volume ratios and mixable wood profiles can be user adjusted.”
As to his wooden barrels, Voicu says that barrel lifespan is never a question, but whether empty or full, the barrels need consistent and stable storage conditions in environments that support wine finishing.
“The food grade stainless body of the hybrid, when properly handled, should last well past thirty years,” says Voicu. “The internal cylinder is free from extra features that capture contaminants, so cleaning is very simple once the heads and staves are removed. The wood components of the system can then be reused like traditional barrels, or economically replaced after each batch.”
Voicu loves that there has been an uptick in small and amateur wine and spirit producers. He encourages the practice with one bit of advice on barrel aging. “There are many barrel options available, and they are not all created equal. When you reflect upon current market forces and increased pressure upon our forests for higher quality wood required for barrels, alternative storage systems that match or exceed the performance of traditional vessels can make great sense and should be considered. Especially in current conditions, when quality stave wood is in high demand due to the wet 2018 and increased pressure from the mills and manufacturing processes.”
What’s Old is New Again: ReCoop Barrels
Lori Adams is the Director Of Business Development for ReCoop Barrels, a nationwide provider of reconditioned oak barrels. Her customers include wineries, distillers and craft brewers. Located in the heart of Sonoma County, she says she has the unique advantage of easy access to excellent barrels for the reconditioning process.
“We get barrels from partner wineries that have proven maintenance standards and systems,” says Adams. “Others bring in their barrels for reconditioning. We perform a barrel assessment for overall cleanliness, acceptable hydration levels, and stave quality, thickness and general condition. We also look at the winery’s practices as to how they store and maintain their barrels while using them. We’ve also learned that some cooperages don’t do well being toasted a second time. It’s an overall qualification process.”
Because there are no standards or rules for disclosing the use of reconditioned barrels, Adams says that typically large production wineries will not reveal that they are using reconditioned barrels. The medium and smaller producers, however, are generally eager to let the community and their customers know that they are sustainable.
“We don’t keep our reconditioned barrels long term,” says Adams. “We keep our product moving to ensure freshness and maximum usability. With a quality reconditioned barrel, you’ll get another two years of oak extraction out of it. Thereafter, depending on how the customer maintains their barrels, it can be used as neutral once again. It’s just another way to save costs.”
ReCoop is the second oldest manufacturer of reconditioned oak barrels, large and small, and Adams believes that the future is only going to get better.
“We have paid our dues, and now have some of the best winemakers in the world currently using our barrels,” Adams says. “I believe using reconditioned barrels is the future.”
Views From The Vineyard
John Falcone, General Manager and Director of Winemaking at Gainey Vineyards in Santa Ynez, California, uses both wood and stainless in his winemaking, sometimes for the same wine. He replaces a percentage of his older, retired barrels each year, and says his key to producing great wines year after year is consistency in the barrels.
“The whole point is to find a barrel signature that fits the style of wine you want to put out, and then practice consistency. Our barrel lifespan is about six to seven years, transitioning to different wine varietals throughout that time. There are many barrel producers out there, and they all have a story about their wood origins, but sometimes even they are wrong about the source of their supplies, so it’s important to constantly taste from your new barrels to make sure the flavor profile is consistent. The more bells and whistles you want your wine to possess, the more oak power you need in a barrel. Less oak forward barrel aging and fermenting will give you a wine that’s more fruit forward. You need to find a balance that fits your needs.”
All of Gainey’s red wines are barrel aged, needing the flavor and structure that comes from the slow exchange of oxygen in a wood barrel. It results in smoother tasting wine. Some of their white varietals prefer the neutrality of flavor that happens with stainless steel tanks. The tanks are airtight, with no chance of interacting with light or additional aromatics. These wines tend to be more faithful to the natural refreshing fruit essence of the wine. However, Falcone says that even these wines can be run through an older wooden barrel for a couple of weeks before finishing in stainless steel.
“The key is keeping these barrels consistent and serviceable,” says Falcone. “It’s important to stay on a routine. We keep them in cold storage and every six to eight weeks we give them a quick rinse to keep them fresh and swollen and then gas them.
Routine and consistency are also crucial to Silver Oak Winery in both Napa Valley and Alexander Valley, California. They use only American white oak and French oak, so it’s critical they have a reliable, consistent barrel supplier to meet the demands of the award-winning vintner.
“We use, at least, ninety-year-old American and French oak for our barrels,” says Vanessa Hart, Enologist at Silver Oak. “It has the straightest grain with the least number of knots. Surprisingly, very little of the wood is used for barrel staves. It’s only the wood that starts six to eight inches above ground up to the first branches.”
“American oak has more potential for stronger flavor and aromatics when compared to French oak, so that goes into the decision on what type of barrel we use for each wine,” says Nate Weis, Vice President of wine growing at Silver Oak. “American oak trees are grown in roughly thirty states now and are subject to the same variances in their life as grapevines are, meaning the ground they are grown on, the landscape, climate, and nutritional availability. Where they are grown matters, so routine tastings are a must to keep a consistent product.”