Month: December 2020
Carne Asada and Malbec Wine – The Challenge and Experiment
Yesterday the idea of going back to a “regular meal” entered into my thoughts after all the elegant Christmas meals. With that, the thought of a nice prepared Carne Asada marinated steak came to mind. So after discussing this with my wife, an excellent cook, and finding a recipe that she had prepared before, I went to the grocery store to find the perfect skirt steak. While talking to the butcher about the meat, I noticed in the meat counter display already prepared and marinated Carne Asada steaks. We seem to always be doing wine comparisons, why not a meat comparison. So this would be a taste off between the meat market prepared steak verses a home marinated steak. That is the background on last night’s meal and this subsequent story.
So back to the house to discuss my idea of the challenge of the two meats. The marinated recipe that my wife prepared called for juice from one lime, juice from one orange, soy sauce, garlic, cilantro, Habanero peppers and Chipotle peppers in an Adobo sauce put into a plastic bag and left to marinate for 6 hours in the refrigerator. The bag and meat were turned and shaken about once an hour. The meat counter steak was already marinated and sat waiting in the refrigerator. Curiosity was building as to which was going to be the winner.
One More Twist
Unbeknownst to me, my wife also put a different twist on the challenge. She cooked them both in a different hot skillet on the stove stop. She used a “non-stick heavy duty frying pan” and a heavy throwback cast iron frying pan.
The Food Pairing
Served with corn the two steaks were plated and served with a drizzle of fresh lime. The result was hands down on the home marinated recipe cooked in the cast iron pan!
The Wine Pairing
Went to the cellar before dinner and grabbed a favorite 2016 Malbec from Mendel, Finca Remota from the famous 3,000 foot elevation Uco Valley, Argentina. This wine is full bodied and tannins thick as molasses on the eyes. On the eyes dark coloration and on the nose, floral violets are present. On the palate almost overpowering black and dark red fruits come to the forefront with tobacco, French oak and fresh leather. On the finish a smoky almost open fire flavor resides in the mouth along with sharp and defined tannins. The wine provides an “old world sense of being” in Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina. The wine paired like two old friends shaking hands, firm and with warmth and understanding of each other’s personality. This wine typically gets between 93 to 96 points year after year. Average price is roughly $85.
Also compared this to another favorite Malbec from Crocker & Starr in Saint Helena (Napa Valley) called ‘Casali 9’. This wine changes year to year but 2016 was 80% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was aged 18 months in 60% new French oak. On the eyes a dark purple coloration and medium viscosity. On the nose and palate, raspberry, dark plum and floral aromas abound. The acidity is mellow and the tannins were rounded and silky smooth. This turned out to be a much more enjoyable wine to sip standalone with more forward fruit. Only 499 cases produced and the current release ‘Casali 11’ is sold out and was sold at $90. ‘Casali 12’ will be out in April 2021.
So in the end, what started out as a simple meal, ending up being a more developed and detailed challenge and experimental meal with the winning results clearly decided. The wine however was a toss-up: one provided a remarkable glove fitting like experience and the other a contrasting more fruit forward and softer, rounded edges to make the meat stand out. Both wines had great merit in the pairing to the meat.
Hopefully tonight’s dinner will be less complex in constructing!
The Year 2020 and Hindsight Wine 20/20
The year 2020 will forever be known for the following:
*Worldwide pandemic from Covid-19 and the subsequent horrible number of deaths
*Financial strain on various segments of the economy, health care workers, wine industry, restaurants, etc.
*Uncontrolled and unprecedented fires in the western United States
*the emotional impact of “social distancing” which has caused emotional turmoil for families.
In the midst of all of this some good things have emerged, like getting a vaccination fast tracked and now just being distributed to contain the virus. Work places being flexible and agile in adapting to “the new order” and individuals recreating and adapting their lifestyles. Those new lifestyles with social distancing, no indoor dining, no social gatherings, etc. For me and on a much smaller scale was getting to know and understand a small boutique winery called Hindsight. While I have written a more in-depth article on the winery at: https://californiawinesandwineries.com/2020/07/16/hindsight-wines-cabernet-sauvignons-calistoga-estate-howell-mountain/ here is a story on one of their wines.
While the Hindsight Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon made the list of the Best Wines Tasted in 2020, one of their other wines, 20/20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2017) should not be overlooked. At the San Francisco International Wine Competition it earned a 95 point rating. It is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine using grapes from some of the best areas of Napa Valley like Rutherford and Spring Mountain. Five day cold soaking shows in the deep rich red color. A real bargain for a Napa Valley wine at $40. Recently they have had some sales at 50% and should not be overlooked for “a steal”. I know many friends and I have purchased the 20/20 as well as others.
Let us all hope that in 2021 we can find our way back to “a normal way of life” and in the interim, enjoy the Hindsight 20/20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2017).
2010 Larkmead Solari – Christmas Dinner
Dan Petroski, winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, has consistently produced exquisite and age worthy wines for years. This has rested comfortably for 8 years in the cellar and was truly worth “stashing away”. It received 96 points and could have easily received 98 (IMHO). It is 100% estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon.
Firstly, this wine was filtered and decanted for 2 ½ hours before the meal. On the eyes, an extremely dark purple color and medium heavy viscosity. One smell of the wine, your expectations were focused and expectations set! It is a fruit driven vintage, with aromas of raspberries, blueberries and vanilla. On the palate, it burst open with an extravaganza of flavors like the conclusion at a major fireworks display. The earthiness counterbalanced with floral notes, soft vanilla tobacco, black cherry and licorice provide explosion after explosion in the mouth. The finish was one of the longest lasting wines this year. The tannins were still omnipresent with structure and the acidity was truncated due to the expressive fruits. This is a wine that beckoned one to sip and savor each droplet in the glass. This definitely will make my Best Wines List! The current release is 2017 and the winery sells it for $200-$225.
Paired with a 4 bone standing rib roast with a local fresh un-cut horseradish. Accompanied with cheesy potatoes and a garden salad with Blue cheese dressing.
While we couldn’t gather as a large family, this Larkmead Vineyard 2010 Solari provided a boast to the Christmas celebration. Excellent wine Larkmead Vineyards!
Gracianna Winery – 2013 Pinot Noir Bacigalupi Vineyard
Their label and name signifies the perfect gift for the season. The name Gracianna is for Trini Amador III’s great grandmother (Gracianna) and they wanted to incorporate all they had to be grateful for and show their gratitude. In addition having the “present with a bow” on the label, makes this wine story timely.
The winery is set on the Russian River in the well know “Miracle Mile” is home of some of the best Pinots just outside of Healdsburg. The “Miracle Mile” is the “confluence of a tectonic age, alluvial soils left by a wandering river, water flowing off of the Sonoma Mountain range which carried with it eroded volcanic material–all of these factors created soils with large amounts of clay in the central portion of the Russian River Valley appellation”.
Gracianna produces approximately 2,000 cases per year of which 70% is for various Pinot’s. The balance of production is for Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Sparkling Brut Rosé – Blush Cuveé. All their Pinot’s are produced in the Burgundian style with French barrels. They use clones 667 and 777 for their Pinot’s in the vineyard and then blend the two. The wine making is a “family affair” with all giving “gratitude” for the fruit of the vineyard.
The 2013 Gracianna 2013 Pinot Noir Bacigalupi Vineyard was one of their outstanding wines. Immediately, even upon just inhaling the aromas, I knew it was going to be a provocative Pinot Noir. With the first sip, was a fruit forward taste of both cherry & strawberry, yet subtlety intensity with just the appropriate amount of pepper, minerality and leather lingering in the backround. The wine peeled backed invigorating layers upon each sip. Very similar aromas and tastes were present in their 2014 Estate Pinot.
Ironically and not known to Trini in our discussion, that in Gaelic, the name Gracianna means “beautiful and graceful, free sweet and innocent”. No wonder why I was immediately seduced to thoroughly enjoying this Pinot.
So no matter if you are being grateful this time of year or wanting to be “seduced”, this wine makes a perfect gift!
Paired this evening with a seasoned pork roast, this was a heavenly meal on Christmas Eve.
Grateful for today and looking forward to tomorrow.
Sláinte and Merry Christmas,
My Best California Wines Tasted in 2020
2020 was by all standards an unusual and strange year with fires and Covid-19. While I am generally fortunate enough to taste and appreciate over 1600+ wines, this year with Stay at Home, fires, etc., I was only able to taste about 1200+ wines. This list roughly represents the top 6% of those wines. I have broken it out by price point, those $50 and under and those $51 and up—-something for everyone! The picks also span almost the entire state AVA’s and sub-AVA’s. I believe whole heartily and stand by these picks. There were many other very good and solid wines, but these “stood out” in the crowd
No matter which category, each wine listed will enhance your tasting experience. These wines represent some of best quality for California wines. Most can be purchased at the winery only and are based upon availability. On the California Wines and Wineries website (not blog) you can put the name of the wine/winery in the search engine and most have stories associated with each wine for a deeper dive.
During the year I have kept meticulous notes on each wine tasted and hope you enjoy these selections in the coming year. Wishing you a wonderful New Year and that 2021 be prosperous, meaningful and find you in good health.
My Best Wines of the Year $50 and less
2018 Tenbrink Chardonnay
2018 Tolenas Sauvignon Blanc
2018 Coquecicot Chenin Blanc
2014, 2015 Shale Canyon Cabernet Franc
2017 LangeTwins Petite Sirah 100 Vineyard
2018 Wood Family Vineyards Chardonnay
2018 Lavender Ridge Roussanne
2014, 2016 Zuidema Wines Grenache
2016 3 Steve’s Cabernet Franc Cienega Valley
2016 Allegorie Tempranillo
2017 Stringer Cellars Syrah Harrison Clark
2018 Dave’s Porch Wines Sauvignon Blanc
2018 Cuda Ridge Winery Sauvignon Blanc
2013 LangeTwins Teroldego
2016 Arroyo Cellars Zinfandel Dry Creek
2019 Arroyo Cellars Chardonnay
2016, 2017 Cuda Ridge Winery Cabernet Franc
2017 Wood Family Vineyards Petite Sirah
2016 Prie Old Vine Zinfandel
2016 Rapp Ranch Chardonnay
2016 Val Du Vino Spanish Dragon (Tempranillo)
2016 Dracaena Cabernet Franc Reserve
2016 Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Franc Catlins Select
2017 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc
2015 Jessie’s Grove Carignane
2016 Casino Mine Ranch Marcel Tempranillo
2018 Wood Family Against the Grain Red Blend (Bourbon Barrel)
2016 Yorkville Cellars Petit Verdot
2016 Yorkville Cellars Carmenere
2017 Cuda Ridge Winery Malbec
2018 Cuda Ridge Winery Carmenere
2018 Acquiesce Picpoul Blanc
2015 Tate Wine Company Merlot
2019 Acquiesce Clairette Blanche
2019 Acquiesce Ingenue
2016 Jeff Runquist Petite Sirah Reserve
2017 Borjon Petite Sirah
2017 Leisure Street Cabernet Franc
2019 Acquiesce Bourboulene
2015 Russian Ridge Concerto (blend)
2017 Silenus Cabernet Franc
2016 Rosa Fierro Cellars Cabernet Franc
My Best Wines of the Year $51 and up
2009, 2010 Lineage Collection blend
2011 Crocker & Starr Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Steven Kent Winery Premier Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 Outpost Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
2014 Crocker & Starr Casili 7 blend
2010, 2015 O’Shaughnessy Howell Mtn Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Frog’s Tooth Alicante Bouschet
2016 Tenbrink Petite Sirah
2010 Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron Cabernet Sauvignon
2009, 2010 Larkmead LMV Salon blend
2010 Shadybrook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2008, 2010 Detert Winery Cabernet Franc
2009 Larkmead Solari Cabernet Sauvignon
2012 YoungInglewood Cabernet Sauvignon
2006, 2007, 2010 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
2017 Outpost Grenache
2016 J. Davies Malbec
2016 YoungInglewood Cabernet Franc
2014 Arkenstone NVD Cabernet Sauvignon
2009, 2010 O’Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon Mt Veeder
2014 St Rose Winery Pinot Noir Ten Block
2016 Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Franc
2016 Vinoce Cabernet Franc Mt Veeder
2017, 2018 Maritana La Riviere Chardonnay
2018 Terminim Cepages d’ Or Blend
2010 Skipstone Cabernet Sauvignon Fault Vineyard
2008 Oakville East Cabernet Sauvignon Exposure
2013 Rapp Ranch Cutter’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2015 Hindsight Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain
2013 Mira Cabernet Franc
2014 YoungInglewood Malbec
2010 Justin Isosceles Reserve blend
2018 Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon
2015, 2017 Duckhorn Merlot Three Palms
2010 Mountain Terraces Lex Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Shadybrook Cabernet Franc
2017 Hunter Glenn Estate Cabernet Franc
2018 Brecon Cabernet Franc
2016 PrueCru Winery Cabernet Franc
2016 Palazzo Cabernet Franc
2017 Diamond Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Franc
2015 Russian Ridge Concerto Blend
Russian Ridge Winery is family owned producing less than 1,000 cases of wine annually. They are located at 919 Washington St. San Carlos. Not your typical urban winery. Their fruit comes from single vineyards around northern California from areas like Paso Robles, Santa Cruz Mountains and even portions of southern Santa Clara County. Most of their wines are done in small lots from 40 to 200 cases. Scott Townsend owner and winemaker, embraces a California winemaker Shawna’s saying “that grapes care where they are grown, not where they are fermented into wine”. Scott made this 2015 wine and today his son Spencer is the winemaker.
The 2015 Russian Ridge Concerto Blend
This wine is from the Santa Cruz Mountains and a blend of 53% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 7% Malbec and 6% Petit Verdot. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot came out of Therese Vineyards and Cabernet Franc out of Copper Garrod and the Petit Verdot and Malbec out of Mannstand Vineyards just north of San Ysidro district in Santa Clara.
On the eyes a very deep crimson and medium viscosity. This “Bordeaux blend” possessed all the key characteristics of a top notch blend. Dark cherry and blackberry are the first aromas that waft into nose. On the palate, the fruits come fully forward along with coffee, vanilla and a faint black licorice. The finish is both soft and silky (Merlot), but still has a firm edginess (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc). It provided a long lasting crescendo with its structure, tannins, minerality and acidity. At the San Francisco International Wine Competition it received Double Gold and 94 points. Only 202 cases were produced. It is isted at $40 on their website.
The Food & Wine Pairing
Last evening dinner was a slow cooker beef and broccoli. A flank steak thinly sliced and combined with soy sauce, brown sugar, beef broth, sesame oil, Sriracha, garlic and green onions. Cooked on low for 4 hours hours. Just before being served steamed broccoli combined in serving bowl, topped off with sesame seeds. The meal was spicy and tangy, so wanted a “mellower wine” to counter balance the heat of the beef. This was an excellent wine to pair with this delicious dish.
A footnote: San Carlos has a list of urban wineries springing up. Worth checking out if they are all as high quality as Russian Ridge Winery!
Three Wise Wines for the Christmas Season
Over the last week, I had three unique and stylistically different wines I would like share with you.
The first one was previously unknown to me, 2014 Russian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Martin Vineyard from Santa Cruz Mountains (California). The winery itself is located in San Carlos, California on the San Francisco Peninsula. It is a small artisan winery producing less than a thousand cases a year. I pulled the bottle from the cellar and opened it in the kitchen. As I swirled the deep colored wine and took my first smell, I knew this was something special as oak, black berries and pipe tobacco resonated in the aroma. The first sip was indeed laced with quality, showing defined tannins and an uncanny sophistication of a true Cabernet Sauvignon! As I sipped on the wine, this was not a typical “urban winery” Cabernet Sauvignon. I went to their website and sure enough this wine won a Double Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. The price listed is $38.
The second wine is a “tried and true” Merlot from Napa Valley. The 2015 Duckhorn Merlot from the cult like vineyard, Three Palms Vineyard. This has been a favorite for many, many years but had not given it a try for some five years or so. What a treat. If you somehow turn your nose up at Merlot, you have missed a great opportunity to experience what a premiere Merlot offers. This wine is 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 1.5% Petit Verdot and .5% Cabernet Franc. It is aged in 75% new oak and 25% neutral oak. Out of the bottle this is a deep red color and medium heavy viscosity. On the nose aromas of blueberry and cedar wake up the senses. On the palate, dark cherries and plump plums carry you to a world not typically associated with Merlot. While yet so smooth, the mouth experience provide a sense of a “heavy chewable wine”. The tannins were silky smooth with a finish of minerality and dark chocolate. The current release, 2017 is $110.
The third wine was once again a new wine for me was a 2016 Chateau Clamens which is blend of 70% Négrette and 30% Syrah. Négrette is a dark red wine grape grown primarily in South West France in the region between Albi and Toulouse. 98% of the world production is in France and 2% in the United States. Négrette is a black skinned variety. It is used in rosés with its fruity and spicy finish. Négrette wines are generally soft and silky with a hint of rustic old world. This Chateau Clamens was an extremely dark color in the glass. On the nose, soft floral notes with blackberries and in the mouth very little tannins and acidity. This made for an excellent sipping wine by itself. The price range is roughly $15 to $20.
These three wines comprised an unique and wonderful treat for the holidays.
2019 Acquiesce Bourboulenc – A Rare Gem!!
What is Bourboulenc?
This varietal comes from southern France, primarily the Languedoc and Provence appellations. Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards claim to be the first winery to release this fascinating and somewhat obscure varietal in the USA. The variety first mentioned in literature goes back to the 16th Century. While the grape is known to be native to Provence, Bourboulenc has a Greek origin where it was known as Asprokondoura. Bourboulenc is often used in blending with Grenache Blanc and Clairette. Bourboulenc is a white wine giving off intense floral aromatics, with a tremendous mouthful feeling of citrus, smoky and soft spicy notes forming a complex finish.
There is so much to state about Susan Tipton, owner and winemaker of Acquiesce Winery. The key takeaway is that she established her winery in Acampo (just north of Lodi) with the expressed purpose of bringing French white wine varieties to market. Lodi had been primarily known for red wines, but she turned heads with some of her unique wines such as Picpoul, Clairette Blanche, Ingénue (blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc & Picpoul), Roussanne and more. Here are some reviews of her wines and impact:
The Wine – 2019 Bourboulenc
The first thing you notice is the golden color in the glass, and the wine possesses a medium heavy viscosity. Intriguing and frankly startling, was the bouquet of aromatics. On the nose were diverse and numerous floral notes. Over temperature they range from stone fruit, almond, pineapple, honeysuckle, orange blossoms, tropical fruits and stone fruits. Once in the palate, they engulf and dance amusingly in the mouth. All these flavors came forward to introduce themselves and left you with a rich textured enchanted mouth feel with sufficient acidity. The finish provides a polarizing effect of softness and minerality at the same time.
The Food and Wine Pairing
We started out with one of our favorite Champagnes, Château de Bligny, Grand Reserve Brut from the village of Bligny, France. This is located south of Épernay home of many world class Champagnes. The main dish was that was served was baked garlic shrimp. It was accompanied with roasted brussel sprouts in olive oil and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar, brown rice and fresh baked rolls. Also a beautiful fresh garden salad.
Last evenings dinner was specifically tailored for the Champagne and Bourboulenc wines. The Champagne as always was delicious, but the Bourboulenc was such a delightful surprise and was a match made in heaven for the shrimp dish. I rated the 2019 Acquiesce Bourboulenc highly and can tell you it has made the Best Wines of Year coming out shortly for 2020.
Shale Canyon Wines Does It Again!
At the recent National Cabernet Franc Wine Competition, Shale Canyon Wines once again won a Gold Medal and Best of Class in the $30 and less category. Remarkably this is their second year in a row that they have pulled off this feat. Last year it was for their 2014 vintage and this year the 2015 continues to outshine the others.
So who are the owners/winemakers of Shale Canyon Wines? It started out as three brothers and Ken Gallegos as the winemaker. Today it is a two man show with Keith Prader and his brother Tim. The responsibilities are for Keith to handle the winemaking, software, sales and marketing. Tim handles the vineyard management, facilities manager and tasting room manager. For the last two years, Keith has also been the winemaker. While lines of responsibilities may be drawn, each can and do fill in any and all needs of running a small two man winery.
The Cabernet Franc that was submitted this year was their 2015 which comes from their Estate in Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. Their property is 375 acres with only 7 acres planted in vineyard. On the estate property they have planted besides Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. Tim mentioned to me that on the estate grapes, they drop a lot of fruit and target about 3 tons per acre. Flavor profile is key and dropping fruit allows more “flavor per grape” (FPG). They have sourced grapes for their Chardonnay, Malbec and Syrah. In 2018 they produced about 1,000 cases and in 2019 produced approximately 1700 cases. Looking out in time to 2025 they believe they will be between 2000 to 2500 cases maximum. Since starting in 2007 and having their first crush in 2008 with purchased grapes, they have been primarily producing 100% varietals. A small exception was their 2014 & 2016 Consortium blend with limited supply for club members, essentially a “Bordeaux style” blend.
For those not familiar with Arroyo Seco AVA in California, here is a map first of the area in California and secondly a map of where Arroyo Seco AVA fits in:
(Map from Arroyo Seco Winegrowers Association)
Consisting of 18,240 acres the Arroyo Seco AVA is one of the smallest AVAs in California. While this area receives about 13 inches of rain per year, they have gone 100% solar power for their operation and today are one of two wineries working completely off the gird.
So back to their Cabernet Franc. This wine is a dark violet on the eye and medium viscosity. On the nose, cherries and a hint of cedar. On the mouth a wondrous blend of blueberry, plum and chocolate. This years was not as “chewy” as the 2014, but surprisingly the 2015 Cabernet Franc with mild tannins and subdued oak was exceptionally smooth and silky with a long lasting finish. I was shocked that a wine at this price tasted so good!
You can experience their wines at their tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Paseo San Carlos, west side of San Carlos between Ocean and Seventh. They are open with limited hours per the government orders, so best to check with them directly. They offer some unique wines like a 100% Mourvèdre and Tempranillo, two varietals uncommon for Monterey County.
The Food Pairing
Last night this wine was paired with pork chops seasoned with mesquite spices and Applewood bacon salt. Accompanied with Yukon gold potatoes and baked parmesan mushrooms completed the meal. An excellent pairing.
Quality has been their mantra since inception and to this point, they drop between 40-50% of the fruit on the vines to provide the most intense flavored grapes for their wines. Kudo’s to Tim and Keith for some excellent work. I have yet to taste their other vines due to Covid pandemic and Stay in Place orders, but can’t wait to taste and review some of their other wines.
The Barrel – A Winemaker’s Secret Ingredient
I recently did a story on corks and how they were the unsung heroes of wine. Perhaps barrels also should be considered in the same vein or as a winemaker’s secret ingredient. See the story on corks can be found at: The Cork – The Unsung Hero of Wine « California Wines & Wineries (californiawinesandwineries.com) .
Wine aficionados are always talking about barrels and how the barrel has imparted this or that flavor. So what exactly happens when wine is stored in a barrel? Where does the wood from the barrels come from? How did barrels become a defacto method of aging wine? What does toasting do for the barrels and subsequently the wine? Hopefully these and other questions will be answered in the following story.
History of the Wine Barrel
The oak barrel dates back to the Greek historian Herodotus and people transporting barrels from ancient Mesopotamian along the Euphrates River (350 BC). In Roman times it was a convenient and durable way to transport wine. Oak barrels have historically been used in both the fermentation process as well as the aging process of wine. Using oak barrels allows more integration of the wine during fermentation.
Anatomy of a Wine Barrel
(Picture from Social Vignerons)
Types of Wood for Barrels
Key reason to use oak is while the cooper/cooperage makes the barrels “leak proof”, oak allows oxygen in very small amounts to impart a change to the wine over time. For example, barrels can make a wine smoother and less astringent.
The two primary types of oak used are French oak and American oak. That said, oak barrels also come from Hungary, Romanian and Slavonian French oak are known for more subtle aromatics and adding nutty and smoky flavors. American oak, with larger pores, provide a faster impact on the wine and provide hints of vanilla and coconut. Some winemakers even chose to mix the two traditional oaks by aging a portion in one type and a portion in another before combining for bottling. Other winemakers may choose to use an American oak but use a French oak head. This provides for a smoother finish and enough oxygen to form the right amount of tannins to help in for color retention. Other woods are also available such as Cherry wood which imparts a dark red fruit flavor and aromatics of toast with a softness and sweetness. For example a winemaker may use 20 barrels of oak and one barrel of cherry.
When a barrel is new, it will influence the wine to a much greater degree. When a barrel has been used two or three times, it is considered “neutral” but will still allow the wine to age, preserving the fruit flavors. Most winemakers when choosing the barrel profile to go with a specific varietal of wine, will use a combination of new and used (neutral) barrels to lock in a winemakers intended desire.
Barrel sizes are not standardized but many use a 225 liter barrel which produces 25 cases of wine. These barrels can range in pricing for American oak of approximately $500 to $1,000 for French oak.
Recently I interviewed a very well know winemaker whose supplier uses optical sorting to select both tight grain and wide grain staves, then pieces the barrel together using the staves alternating tight and wide grain. This allows for a slow and even aging process in the same barrel.
Toasting of Wine Barrels
(photograph from TN Coopers )
Traditionally barrels are toasted using an open flame in the middle of an open barrel. That said more recently, other methodologies are available like convection toasting which is more replicable, repeatable and consistent. Other ways also include radiant heat and longer convection toasting of oak. Different toasting and methodologies provide different aromatics such as sweeter aromatics, caramel, vanilla and spice characteristics. With each of these methods, different levels of roasting are available to the winemaker. Toasting is considered one of the key contributors in giving wine a “mouth feel”. Generally winemakers’ order their barrels “light, medium or heavily toasted” to get the correct flavor profile for the type of wine going into the vessel.
Most of the discussion of oak barrels revolves around red wine, however one of the exceptions is oaked California Chardonnay. The barrels selected are instrumental in creating buttery (along with secondary malolactic fermentation), crackerjack and popcorn flavors.
Other options for to get “oak” in the flavor profile can come from imparting an “open mesh cloth with pieces of oak” in a barrel or stainless steel tank. Sometimes this is known as chips, blocks or staves being used.
The selection and characteristics of choosing a barrel is a “science” unto itself for most winemakers as discussed in this brief story. This is why on most winemakers’ notes it is stated that X% was new French or American oak and Y% was “neutral or 2 year old oak barrels”. Perhaps your next sip of a strong red wine, you can taste and differentiate the oak barrels used and how they affected the wine?
On a personal note I would like to thank Mary Beth Suther at TN Coppers for her time spent with me and her “barrel knowledge”.