October 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Coopers Roll Out Innovations

Water shaping, acacia wood, red wine fermentations and more

by Kerry Kirkham

  • Due to increased demand, red wine barrel fermentation options are on the rise.
  • Coopers tout the water-bending process as a path to softer tannins.
  • Appellated American oak targets sensory impact through specific grain options.
From barrels shaped in water to barrels made from acacia wood, from barrels streamlined for red wine fermentation to appellated American oak, winemakers have more barrel options to work with than ever before. In an industry that dates back to the Roman Empire, abundant new product releases may signify that both the wine and cooperage industries are alive and well.

Many of these new barrel options are new to the market, and some are still in the trial stages. A few products aren’t slated to launch until the 2012 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., in January.

Watering the roses
Via email through a translator, Franck Renaudin, director of Bordeaux, the French Tonnellerie Quintessence, discussed the cooperage’s new Hydro-Dynamique water-bent barrel, which is poised to launch at Unified.

Instead of fire-bending, where staves are pre-heated over a fire, in the water-bending process coopers use hot water or steam to pre-heat the wood prior to bending. “Our method is designed to reduce the oak tannin and prepare the oak for toasting in a way that will result in a softer mouthfeel,” Renaudin said.

Renaudin explained, “Tannin is very soluble in water. Therefore we immerse the rose—a raised barrel with only one hoop on one side—in a custom tank. What makes this barrel unique is our use of continual water circulation to promote optimal tannin extraction. The constant movement prevents an equilibrium film from being formed, which accelerates the rate of extraction. Also, thanks to the water-filtration system we can maintain an ideal environment for tannin extraction throughout the day. Since molecules tend to move from high to low concentration, filtering the water maximizes the gradient from high to low and leads to a thorough extraction for every barrel.”

Tonnellerie Quintessence has dedicated this process to French oak (Quercus petraea), which, according to Renaudin, has up to 10 times more tannin content than American oak, Quercus alba. Through a specialized toast, the Hydro-Dynamique was designed for light to medium reds. For reds, Renaudin suggested Pinot Noir, some Syrah and Merlot. For white wines, he mentioned Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon.

Fermenting in barrel
For those wishing to ferment in an oak barrel for extraction, color concentration and softer integrated tannins, Cooperages 1912 recently launched a red wine fermentation option for its T.W. Boswell collection. Jason Stout, international sales director at Napa, Calif.-based Cooperages 1912, said, “Fermenting red wine in oak barrels is nothing new, but there’s been a trend in the past five to 10 years—it has become more popular. It takes a lot of skill and labor to do. Not everyone has the time and ability to pop a head out of a barrel.”

Without having the skills of a trained cooper, who would have to be called in twice (before fermentation and after), T.W. Boswell’s red wine fermentation option simplifies the process with three adjustable hoops and a removable head. The body of the barrel is constructed so that it won’t collapse while adjustments are made to the hoops with a socket wrench and a hex bit. Two screws are embedded in the barrelhead to attach a custom-made handle so the head can be lifted out easily.

Gary Chappell, international manager at Napa-based Bouchard Cooperages, noted that he also has seen an increased interest in barrel fermentation. Chappell said, “It’s more work, but I keep hearing about it more and more. There’s a marriage between wood and wine. If it starts happening in the initial stage of fermentation, the people who are doing it say it’s more seamless.”

Represented by Bouchard Cooperages, Vicard Tonnelleries of Cognac, France, has introduced its Vinificateur barrel—engineered with a stainless steel bilge hatch, racking valve and tasting valve. The puncheons come with a four-wheeled galvanized steel rack for smooth barrel rotation. To save backs in the cellar, the rack can be moved via forklift. Vinificateur puncheons are available in 300L, 400L, 500L and 600L sizes, all made in French oak, and are customized by grain tightness and desired toasting profile.

Grain on the brain
Part of the Cork Supply Group, Benicia, Calif., Tonnellerie Ô released its Crème DLC, extra fine tight grain Burgundy barrel. According to Jason Butler, master cooper at Tonnellerie Ô, it goes against the grain both in style and science. “It integrates quickly and elegantly, opposite to what you might expect with tight grain oak.”

Toasted in a manner similar to a Bordeaux barrel, Crème DLC is composed of a handpicked blend of extra fine grain Vosges- and Bertranges-sourced oak. “It’s never going to be a product we can make unlimited amounts of—it’s truly allocated. We are only making 300 for the 2011 vintage.” Butler said.

Barrel 21, also part of the Cork Supply Group brand, has released two styles of American white oak barrels—Northern Blend (tight grain) and Appalachian Blend (medium grain). The Ozarks Blend (medium to wide grain) is due out in 2012.

Through controlled wood sourcing in the U.S., “We’re targeting a grain-type barrel,” Butler said. Northern and Ozarks Blends undergo a three-year seasoning cycle in a seasoning yard in Caledonia, Minn. The Appalachian blend rests for two years in a Pennsylvania seasoning yard.

As far as flavor goes, Butler said, “Tighter grain seasoned appropriately will allow us to maximize higher levels of furfural and vanillin resulting in caramel and vanilla notes—smooth and sweet on the pallet.  With the medium grain, we can maximize the higher levels of eugenols enticing spicy and clove characteristics.”

Gary Chappell from Bouchard Cooperages discussed Vicard Tonnelleries American oak barrels, which were traditionally made from wood sourced in Missouri. Vicard is now offering a limited number of barrels made from Pennsylvania oak. The wood, with a grain tightness of less than 2mm, is sourced from the Appalachian Mountains and seasoned in Cognac for a minimum of 24 months.

“There are definitively subtle flavor differences and profiles between wood from Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio and Minnesota. Wind, soil and climate can characterize one forest from another. Pennsylvania is usually tighter grain,” Chappell said. He added that Pennsylvania oak is more subtle as far as American oak goes.

Black locust takes root
Seguin Moreau, Napa, Calif., recently received the first orders for its new Fraîcheur barrel with its fine grain medium long toast French oak body and untoasted acacia Robinia pseudoacacia (aka black locust) heads.

Chris Hansen, sales manager at Seguin Moreau, explained, “On the body we use our Aquaflex water-bending process. The goal was to incorporate acacia while keeping the wines fresh and crisp with subtle oak impact. The water-bending process brings freshness, and the acacia brings floral aromas.” Hansen added that untoasted acacia heads, which represent roughly 30% of the interior surface area of the barrel, have less of a tannin concentration than their French oak counterparts. “Full acacia has a nuttiness to it,” Hansen added.

Fraîcheur was designed with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne in mind. Seguin Moreau suggested aging on lees for five to eight months after fermentation. Limited racking toward the end was recommended to prevent premature oxidation.

For those looking to go black locust all the way, Tonnellerie Billon, represented by Bouchard Cooperages, now offers barrels fabricated with 100% seasoned French acacia wood from the Burgundy region.

According to Gary Chappell from Bouchard Cooperages, “Acacia doesn’t mask fruity characteristics. It brings fresh fruit flavors more forward.” Depending on the wine base, melon, peach or mango notes can be heightened. Chappell added, “It’s about 46 euros cheaper than a Billon French oak barrel but a little more expensive than an Eastern European barrel.”

Acacia doesn’t have to be seasoned quite as long—depending on the weather it can take about 24 months. The idea behind seasoning is for the wood to repeatedly get rained on then dry out, thus reducing reduce harsh lactones. “It’s like putting a sponge under a faucet and squeezing it, rinsing it out and repeating numerous times,” Chappell explained.

Chappell recommended the 100% acacia barrel for Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Priced 46 euros less per barrel than French oak, acacia is well positioned to be an exciting alternative.

Boasting the toasting
Developed by Jérôme Damy over three vintages, the new Damy Rouge barrel from Tonnellerie Damy uses a hand-selected house blend of extra tight grain French oak—all sourced from one long-term supplier and seasoned for a minimum of 36 months.

During the Damy Rouge toasting process, a stronger and hotter fire is used to help develop structure in red wines. Chappell explained, “Longer time on the fire, a slow toast, gives less intense heat so the wood has less char than medium plus.” Intense heat is the applied at the end of the toast.

“Damy is traditionally known for its Chardonnay barrels—Jérôme looked for something that would marry well with heavier, bolder reds such as Syrah from Washington and Central Coast, bigger Pinots from Willamette Valley and Santa Barbra Highlands as well as Russian River Pinots that are longer on the vine,” Chappell said.

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