Barrels are such an integral part of winemaking that it’s hard to visit a winery anywhere and not see at least a few of these beautiful oaken containers on display. In fact, the standard, cliché photo of a winemaker shows him or her either posed in front of a stack of barrels or taking a sample of wine out of one for evaluation.
The barrel as we know it is a remarkably old invention, having been developed by the Celts about 700 years ago. Yes! In addition to having brought us Enya, Lucky Charms and the phrase “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!”, the Celts, who populated a great swath of Europe in their heyday, also developed the technology to bend staves of wood and hold them tight with iron hoops. I guess they had to have some way of keeping the vermin out of their breakfast cereal.
Primarily a transport container in its original iteration, the barrel came to be associated with directly improving wine quality only much more recently. Nowadays it’s almost obligatory to put fine red wines in barrels for a year or so, and many of the finest Chardonnays camp out there too (Riesling, Nein danke).
As it happens, Chardonnay likes to be introduced to oak well before it is actually a finished wine, via a process called barrel fermentation. Now commonplace, this practice was new and cutting-edge to New World winemakers about 30 years ago, though in reality it had been practiced by Burgundian winemakers for eons (add your own definition of an eon here).
The story goes that either a Californian or an Australian practitioner went to Burgundy and asked, “Why do you ferment your Chardonnay in barrels?” The answer, no doubt accompanied by a Gallic shrug, was along the lines of “Because that’s the only container I have.”
The other story, this one actually verifiable, is that Fox Run owner Scott Osborn is here in the Finger Lakes because of barrel fermented Chardonnay. He had spent some time immersed in the California wine industry in the 1980s, but decided to set up shop locally after tasting an early example from the pioneers of that style here, Wagner Vineyards.
Putting Chardonnay juice in barrels, and then commencing to look after what has just become a large number of individual fermentations rather than just one, certainly ramps up the work load during vintage. But the returns in terms of wine quality are enormous. Thanks to our understanding of microbiology and biochemistry, we now know that yeast cell enzymes act in concert with the soluble components of oak to produce aroma compounds that would otherwise not make their way into the wine.
Thus a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, even one from new oak, can show as not especially oaky. The integration of oak into the fruit can be so subtle that we even ferment that most delicate of wine styles, our Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, in oak, albeit oak that was “pre-owned” by several previous vintages of Chardonnay. By contrast, a Chardonnay introduced to a new barrel after fermenting to dryness would smell more like a lumberyard than a wine. (Those of us who tasted the early, clumsy examples of oak-aged California Chard in the late 1970s remember that very sensation. Eeew.)
Our barrel-fermented Chardonnay, destined for the bottling we designate Reserve, is just coasting to dryness as I write this. Next step: coaxing all 33 barrels through malolactic fermentation. More on that, including the winemaker-specific pseudo-malady known as Red Ear, in a future post.
-By Peter Bell, Winemaker
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