Since the introduction of cement vats in the 19th century, wine critics have fiercely debated whether wine is best aged in cement or wood. Since cement does not appear to affect a wine’s flavor, many experts believe that a wine’s natural, terroir-based qualities can only be expressed through cement aging. However, proponents of oak barreling say that the wood lends a particular earthy flavor to wines that are an essential part of what makes Rhone-style blends unique. As a compromise, more winemakers in California are using larger oak barrels to lessen the impact of oak flavors, especially for Rhone strains.
More Space Means Less Physical Contact
The standard size for an oak barrel is a 225-liter barrique used by most estates around the world. Many modern wine experts assume that winemakers use this barrel size because it produces the finest wine. This is not the case; the use of barriques only became popular in the 1700s, when estates discovered that the barrels were easier to carry in this size than in larger 500-liter containers. This meant that estates needed fewer workers to carry the barrels, lowering their labor costs significantly.
What many of these estates gained in lower operating costs they lost in their wines’ natural, terroir-based flavors. Delicate wines such as Sangiovese simply cannot handle a high concentration of oak in the final palate, as it easily overwhelms the other flavors of the wine. Many Italian winemakers, such as Soldera, realized this centuries ago, and have traditionally used the largest barrels available to ferment Sangiovese. The grapes used to make this iconic Italian wine are relatively thin-skinned and supple; as such, too much direct physical contact with oak affects the flavor powerfully, making it more bitter. Large barrels prevent this because a smaller percentage of the wine rests in direct contact with the wood. The less wood interferes directly with the wine, the more likely the wine is to express the qualities that were present in the wine terroir before aging began.
Taste studies on Napa Valley wines have supported the use of larger barrels to develop more subtle flavors. Experts have found that the same grapes grown on the same estate and fermented for the same amount of time had brighter flavors when they were fermented in large oak containers compared to those which were aged in small barriques. The wines produced in large 700-liter containers tend to age better than those fermented in barriques because bright flavors are more present in the wine’s youth. Brightness decreases the longer a wine ages, so collectors should look for bright young wines if they want a wine that will taste more lively in its old age. Winemakers also see an increase in openness and brightness when they use cement vats, but larger wood containers have the added benefit of bringing earthy oak flavors to the wines. This is an essential flavor component of Rhone-style wine blends.
Case Studies in Napa Valley
Barrel seller Mel Knox has claimed that his company witnessed an increase in sales for larger puncheon barrels over the last 10 years, especially from Napa Valley growers. These puncheons often hold about 700 liters of wine compared to the standard 250 liters. One of the first, and most famous, estates to make this switch was Robert Mondavi, who built enormous upright barrels on the estate in the mid-2000s. As a result, many of the wines grown on the estate since 2005 have been brighter and more open in flavor than those grown in the past. Cabernet Sauvignon is not as oak-sensitive as Sangiovese, but Mondavi has claimed to notice a difference in the flavors of its Cabernet since changing its fermentation containers. The estates Mondavi operates have unique soil compositions and climates that lend his wine terroir-specific flavors, and, like Sangiovese, these flavors are more adequately expressed when little is done to interfere with them during the aging process.
While larger containers are a relatively new trend in Napa Valley, some producers, such as Favia, have been using this method for years. Unlike Mondavi, who made a significant and permanent shift in barrel size, Favia takes a more flexible, climate-based route. Its owners believe that the size of the fermentation container should depend partly on grape health. Grapes that are stronger and more concentrated in juice might not need large barreling, as their flavors can withstand the extra oak. By contrast, grapes grown in poor weather, and that grew slowly, would be unable to handle the intensity of oak produced by 250-liter barriques. The estate switches between 500-liter and 700-liter containers, based on climate and instinct. This lends the wine a stronger terroir-based palate, since the focus is on the wood’s ability to enhance natural flavors, rather than overwhelm them.
To Follow the Trend, Look to Modernized Napa Estates
Large oak containers are only used on premium estates, which is why so many Napa Valley producers are now using this method. As the region increases in market value and popularity, its finest estates have the funds and resources available to make this change. Since it is more difficult to maintain large oak containers than it is to maintain multiple barriques, collectors typically only see the finest premium estates using this method.
Hundred Acre’s owners care for 95 puncheons on the estate, which require a large, daily labor force to maintain. Many estates do not have the budget to handle a staff this large. In addition, the larger a container is, the more difficult it is to keep the wine inside cool. The wine at the center of the barrel tends to stay warmer than the wine along the barrel’s edges. In small containers, this is not as much of a concern because winemakers can easily cool the small surface area of the barrel off, which in-turn cools the inside. With larger containers, adequately cooling the surface area is more difficult. Wines exposed to too much heat during fermentation risk souring as the cells of the wine break down. This is not a concern for winemakers who have the resources available to keep their storage rooms significantly cooler than normal.
Since larger barrel methods require far more work and a greater investment, it is best for collectors to choose large barrel-aged wines only from premium estates, as some estates may not have the resources to employ this technique properly. Estates that use this technique tend to have stronger terroir-specific flavors in their wines because the wines are not being suffocated by strong oak qualities. When collectors use barrel size as selection criteria for their next wines, they are more likely to choose a brighter wine that cellars longer and has more natural flavors than its barrique-aged peers.
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