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A Little More About Barrels

Several weeks ago I talked about the profound relationship that wine shares with oak and the importance of the barrel maker to the winemaking process. The artistry of bending the wood of the oak tree to benefit the crafting of wine extends well beyond the domain of the cooper. The winemaker chooses very carefully which vessels his wine will mature in. The choice is far more complex than simply whether to use French or American oak. At Deerfield, one of the key elements we use to create such nuanced wine is the implementation of what are known as barrel schedules, or programs. A great deal of thought and planning is done by the winemaker to create a schedule to add depth to the wine. Each wine rests in a variety of different barrels, so for example a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe even just one exemplary block in a vineyard, is given a custom-tailored barrel program. What's more, when that Cabernet is included in a blend years later, a new barrel schedule is created for that blend. What is incredible to me is the understanding the winemaker has of the impact on the character of the wine that a specific barrel has. There are three factors to consider in choosing a barrel for the program. The type of oak the barrel is made of: French, American, Hungarian oak, have very different flavors. Usually, at Deerfield, a wine receives a mixture of French and American oak barrels. The overriding idea is that when the barrels are later blended together, the attributes of both will be present in the wine. The second factor is the tonnellerie, or cooperage, that produced the barrel. There is a great deal of room for expression during the creation of a barrel - the heat and duration for which the barrel is "toasted" greatly impacts the flavor of the wood. The same barrel can even be constructed out of staves of different types of oak. Or all the staves can be one type of oak and the heads another. There's lots of variation and innovation within the cooperage industry, and though barrel making is a craft steeped in tradition, ongoing experimentation has invigorated competition among the coopers. During harvest, representatives drop by with a case of beer for the crew hoping to get the ear of the winemaker and tout the strengths of their barrels. Indeed, there are many to choose from. Demptos, Radoux, Bel Air, Tonnellerie du Val de Loire, Saint martin, Kovacs Tokai, Seguin Moreau, Quintessence, Magrenan, Kelvin Cooperage, Sylvain, World Cooperage, Emeritage, Boutes Tonnellerie de France, Trust, Tonnellerie Remond are just a few brands that reside in Deerfield's cave. Each chosen for its unique qualities and carefully monitored for performance. And then many cooperages tout different lines of barrels like models of cars - luxury, durability, longevity, leather seats. The point is you've got options. Lastly, the age of the barrel (in terms of its use) is a significant factor. When a barrel is brand new it has an intense oak flavor and any wine aged in it will assume that intensity. After about four years of wine sitting in it, a barrel has pretty much used up all of the oak flavor. Barrels that are old and no longer have noticeable oak flavor are referred to as neutral barrels. They are still useful - they impart tannins and remove harsher ones and allow the wine to breathe. So usually a wine is aged in a combination of new, 1 year, 2 year, 3 year, and neutral barrels so that when the barrels are blended back together for bottling (or further blending) the resulting wine is well balanced. Also this gives the winemaker options for different blends. Perhaps a Tuscan style Sangiovese blend would benefit from a Cab Sauv that has been aging in  new barrels. Here is part of the barrel schedule for 2009. On the head of most barrels you can see the type of oak, the year the barrel was made, the cooperage and the amount of toast. If you stop by the cave take note of what barrels are being used for each wine.

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    Chronicles Of A Deerfield Cellar Rat - Cellar Rat Blog - A Little More About Barrels
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