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Barrel aging

  • Barreling Through The Years

    February 27, 2018 15:30

    Barreling Through The Years

    Barrel time in wine country is important enough to have its’ own celebration in the form of two Barrel Tasting weekends in March. 41 years ago the Barrel Tasting, originally sponsored by the then Russian River Wine Road (now simply Wine Road) a group of wineries located near the Russian River, began as a way for people to discover northern Sonoma County. 41 years ago there were less wineries hence wines to try-it was at the beginning of the wine renaissance here. Today you have the joy of discovering new and old friends in the mix with over 100 wineries thieving samples out of the barrel for you. The event takes place between Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.

    Back in those early years there were less than 30 wineries participating. I have been here for 33 years and have worked a majority of those weekends. We went from trying to keep up with cleaning glasses to having folks ‘BYOG’ followed quickly by the first branding efforts with an official logo glass for $5. Numbers of wineries now range over 120 participating! Futures were added later on and not much has changed except the number people attending going from 100 to 25,000 at the peak in 2008. These days we see less people than at the peak-much less-which in turn gives us more time for visitors to taste and ask questions. Winemakers and cellar crews stand at the ready to talk about the wine and process of barrel aging. Join us this year as we feature the Past, Present and Future of our Alto Vineyards Sangiovese-a library release, our current 2015 vintage and the 2016 still in barrel. A splash of Sangiovese in my Dino with a toast to 40 more years of barrel tasting.

    **You still have time if you want to attend, tickets are sold at the door.

  • American vs French Oak

    March 9, 2016 17:14

    Barrel tasting continues this weekend across Northern Sonoma County via the Wine Road's 38th annual event. I have written about how to taste from a barrel, how wine in a barrel changes, and today I’ll focus on oak sources.

    Our oak barrels, all 2000 of them, are a mixture of American, French and Hungarian oak. The reason for using three types of oak comes from their ‘flavor profile’ and we match it up with certain varietals. For instance American oak and Zinfandel have always paired well together and we only age our Pinot Noir in French oak. But why is this? You should also take into consideration that we do not use 100% new oak each vintage-more like 25% which also influences the wine’s flavor profile.

    There are subtle but tangible differences between the three types of oak. We use medium plus toast across the board. This means the barrel is toasted to a medium char and the heads (or ends) of the barrel are toasted too. This brings out what we call the toasty, wood fire-like aroma in all of them. The American oak can be a bit more reserved when it comes to its’ profile with less fruit aspects and more toasted oak influence. Since Zinfandel is already fruit forward it makes sense to pair the American oak with this one. Pinot Noir, while showing fruit, benefits from the almost perfume-y aromatics of French Oak. We don’t use a large amount of Hungarian oak but it is similar in profile to French oak.

    It all comes down to the bouquet-both of the varietal as well as the oak. If you have ever walked by a coffee roaster think about those aromatics because they are close to what you can smell of the oak influence in a finished wine. Or the next time you are camping, take in those aromas as well and develop your olfactory memory for toasted oak. I'll 'toast' to oak and its wonderful layered influence in our wines.

    I couldn't resist using this photo of my uncle from a few years ago-he is surrounded by a friendly group of barrel tasters.

    A typical March day outside the Barrel Room. Making way for a new vintage to be aged within.

    Barrel Room

  • Barrel Hoop-la

    February 17, 2016 17:40

    I have focused before on the important role barrels and aging play in the making of wine. A review today of what happens in our cellar where over 2000 barrels are used in order to age the wine the best way possible-over time. The first quarter of each year sees the cellar crew focusing on the transfer of wine from last year’s stay in barrel with the next vintage.

    It is the quiet after the storm of a busy harvest and aging wines are resting in the barrel room. Their repose comes to an end a year or so after they have been filled with new wine. The barrels and the atmosphere in the barrel room (usually around 55 degrees and humidified to slow the oxidation) have incrementally oxidized the wine with visits by the crew to top them off every three months or so. This process preserves the overall condition of the wine, making sure no extra oxygen, a detriment, spoils the wine. The aging process is key to softening up wines, red wines in particular.

    We use mostly American oak for our wines and add French oak when we feel it is the right fit. Pinot Noir and our Wisdom Cabernet Sauvignon are in this category. The size also matters and in our case it adds up to 59 gallons, which produces around 25 cases of vino. We feel this gives our wines the advantage because this size has the correct wine to oak ratio—just right to make the fruit shine and the oak components frame it. Additional bottle age will also do justice to the process and this is a story for another day. For now, a toast from my Dino to yours with a splash of Zinfandel.

    Cellar work is never done or so it seems.

    Barrel Room

  • Taking the Cellar's Temperature

    February 4, 2016 17:47

    If it is February then it must be barrel time. This is one of the busiest months in our barrel room for the cellar crew. Led by Hipolito Cano, our cellar master, the 2014 wines that have aged for one year are being emptied to make room for the new vintage of 2015. An important aspect of our barrel room is its’ temperature especially while aging 2000 barrels.

    Rule of thumb for cellar temperature is more or less 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is used for keeping barrels at the right temperature for slowly aging the wine during its 12 month stint. For bottled wines you’d like to cellar this is also the rule. In the case of barrel aging, if the temperature is higher-let’s say by 5 or 10 degrees, the wine would age faster than if kept at a lower temperature. Too low and it will slow it down even more but not give those microorganisms that age the wine the right temperature. The same can be said for that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve been aging.

    If you have followed me for a while you’ll know I reference Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa Florida. If you are a wine lover make this part of your bucket list. Some of the wines on their list go back to the 1800s and they are in great condition. The reason? The cellar is kept at a very low temperature-40 degrees. They give you a tour too-take a parka! So we’ll keep our cellar at just the right temperature. Now for a splash of Cabernet in my Dino, cellar temperature of course!

    Today's temperature-taken after barrel work. The temperature will go down as the evening sets in with vents opening to the night air, capturing natural air conditioning.

    Cellar Thermometer

  • Barrel Redux

    March 12, 2015 16:43

    How many bottles of wine do you get out of each barrel? What does “MT” stand for? Where does the oak come from to make the barrels? I’ll answer them in order and I will include some other aspects of the Barrel Room and barrels in general. We get about 300 bottles of wine (25 cases) from each barrel. We store 2000 of them which equals 600,000 bottles total. To take it a step further we make 70,000 cases of wine with a total of 840,000 bottles. And we are still considered at the larger end of ‘small’ production. The initials ‘MT’ stand for medium toast, which is the overwhelming choice when it comes to the level of toast in a barrel for us. The toasting of the staves and heads (barrel ends) brings more flavor to the gradually aging wine. By toasting the oak you get aromas and flavors like vanillin and spice. They aren’t in the forefront but they do add complexity. Oak or Quercus Alba, American oak in this instance, is grown in and around Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin. We think this type of oak suits our wines and is used almost exclusively (we do incorporate French oak for a couple of our wines). The life of a barrel typically sees about 8-10 vintages here because we use 25% new oak combined with seasoned barrels. This also gives us wine that is mellow rather than overly oaky-my dad always says he’d rather taste the grape than wood. Stop by this weekend-I’ll be thieving our 2013 Merlot. I will be happy to answer your questions! Click here for ticket information.

    A peek at a few of our barrels--did you know our Barrel Room is naturally air conditioned?
    Vents open to the night air and close during the day keeping it a cool 48-55 degrees.

    Barrel Room

  • Stave yourself

    March 5, 2015 16:53

    Barrel tasting, a term which has been around since barrels were invented, refers to tasting wines throughout their time in barrel. Each year we participate in an event that features hundreds of wines thieved out of the barrel for educational purposes. We believe you, the taster, will gain a better understanding of what goes on with the wine as it ages. Many of us will either feature the 2013 or 2014 vintages depending on the winery (we’ll be thieving our 2013 Merlot) and a younger vintage will display some rougher mouthfeel because the tannins in the wine haven’t been tamed by time. If you read some of my blog posts from January I discussed the importance of oxygen in aging. A little bit over the year or so in barrel will soften the wine and make it more appealing-ready to drink. Bottle aging helps too because again that bit of oxygen exchange also takes place and softens the wine even further. Some questions to ask as you stand at the barrel talking to the winemaker or cellar master might be: What type of oak do you use? How many vintages do you use your barrels? What do you prefer when ordering your barrels, medium or light toast? How long has this wine aged or how long will you age the wine? You get up close and personal with the wine process. There is nothing more personal than having the winemaker thief a sample of his or her pride and joy for you to taste. I’ll be there at the barrel during the weekend-stop by and we’ll discuss the finer points of toast, wood and aging.

    Barrel Tasting

  • Ullage-it's not a town in Sweden

    January 21, 2015 17:40

    First I’ll define the word ullage. We use it in the wine industry to describe the loss of wine due to evaporation while the wine ages in barrel or bottle. For example, when someone writes to me about their 1974 Cabernet and they want to know how it’s doing, one of the first questions I ask is to describe the fill line on the bottle. We call that ullage-the level at which the wine is located in the neck of the bottle indicates loss of wine over time and determines whether the wine is spoiled or not. It is the same in a barrel except instead of an ounce of wine lost it is more like 1-2 gallons every 3 months-when the cellar crew tops each barrel and continues the aging process. However even at this cost (in wine) the act of barrel aging does concentrate by the slow vaporizing of water and alcohol. Why do you think a barrel room smells so good? It’s all about wine vapor. And in either case, if too much air gets in, spoilage will occur at an even greater cost-that of the entire contents turning into vinegar. Another form of loss is in the lees. You’ve heard of the term ‘dregs’ and this is what you get at the bottom of the barrel-dead yeast cells, a byproduct of aging. These dregs are not used and are, after the wine is removed, washed away-as in the photo below. Oak (and cork) is permeable and ultimately, even though a little air is a good thing, the benefits outweigh the loss of product. Hmmm, I’m ready for a glass of red-preferably a nicely aged one!

    Cleaning barrels-the purple sludge is AKA dead yeast cells.

  • Going through hoops

    January 20, 2015 17:44

    Cellar activity comes alive in January as we transfer the previous vintage, 2013, out of barrels and then fill them back up with the 2014 wines. There are two activities which help age our young wines. One is the container and the second one is the atmosphere found within the barrel aging room itself. We didn’t install air conditioning in this large building but the temperature here is regulated by vents that open to the night air, close in the morning and maintain a steady temperature throughout the year-on average 55-60 degrees. Each of our red wines are aged for 12 months. As the year progresses, the barrels are ‘topped off’ with additional wine every three months because, as it ages, a portion evaporates. Even when we are keeping the barrel room at a cool temperature we have loss, which is the reason behind aging wine in a porous container like an oak barrel. Slow oxidation over time concentrates flavor, adds character, and gives more structure through acidity-the less water and alcohol the resulting wine has, the more these shape and define the wine. There is a tipping point however because with too much evaporation, there is a chance of spoilage. With air getting to the wine there is a chance that it will turn bad, in a word vinegar. Another way of alleviating rapid loss is humidifying the room. In California the humidity level is rather low. By using these two relatively simple steps makes the wine in your glass much more complex, tastes better and is easier to drink upon release. Now where is my glass-I’m ready for some nicely aged Merlot.

    The sight glass is a gauge used when emptying barrels, letting the cellar crew know when they have reached the bottom-more air, less wine and it keeps the lees at the bottom of the barrel.

    Barrel Sightglass

  • Barrel Know-How

    January 14, 2015 17:48

    How big are those barrels? We use 59 gallon size barrels which holds enough wine for about 24 cases, give or take a bottle or two. Why do we barrel age wine at all? Think about it in this way. If you have a raw piece of wood that needs the edge taken off and you’d like to use it as a frame, you’d take it to the shop and start sanding and shaping it. The same thing happens in barrel-the wine is raw and rough when it is transferred and aging for one year, on average, helps to smooth out those edges. There are more benefits to aging including aeration, concentration and oak notes like toast-something the cooper (barrel maker) does to increase the flavor components in the wine. The process gives the wine, over time, more complexity as it takes on some aspects of the wood itself. Aeration slowly incorporates oxygen thereby smoothing the tannins; concentration is next and with evaporation of water and even alcohol you get concentrated flavors. Did you know we lose about a gallon or two to this process? Oak flavor comes from the toasting of the wood-which caramelizes (bruleé anyone?) and infuses the aging wine with extra flavor. More later as I take a few more blog posts to talk about this important step in a wine’s life. Thirsty? How about a nicely aged Cabernet in your glass.

    Cellar crew member Hector Lopez with a barrel wand, emptying one vintage to make room for the next.

    Hector Lopez

  • Barrel Room

    January 13, 2015 17:51

    As you enter our Tasting Room you can’t miss the big window that is positioned between the connected buildings-this was one of the last additions to the winery and was completed in 1986 as our production was increasing and there was a need for more barrel space.  It is a portal into the inner workings of our winery even though it seems as if nothing is happening, especially if you are stopping by on weekends. There is more going on during the week when the cellar crew is here. At times it looks like a bunch of barrels stacked neatly—in reality six high with a total of two thousand of them aging away to be exact.

    The crew spends December through March emptying barrels of the previous vintage and filling with the new. This is a part of a wine’s journey where it seems like there isn’t anything going on but we, with inside information, know there is. The process itself is oxidation but a very slow oxidation because the barrel room is kept cool and humid. The barrel itself isn’t airtight and allows a minute amount of oxygen in to soften the wine, making it supple over time. We keep the barrel room adjusted with a humidifier because the lack of humidity, especially here in California, will make the wine oxidize too quickly leaving a chance of spoilage. Each barrel is taken down three times during the course of aging to replace the wine lost to oxidation thereby preventing any possible spoilage. The actual time spent in wood not only slowly ages the wine it also steeps in the oak, imparting the element of toasted wood, cedar and smoky aromas detected in barrel aged wines. This adds another level of complexity and plays an important role in bouquet and taste of the finished product. Our winemaking style calls for 25% new oak blended with seasoned barrels. This helps us keep a balance between the fruit and the oak components for a ‘just right’ taste in your glass of red wine. A toast (pun intended) to the barrels with some Zin in your glass.

    Barrel Room