Growing & Winemaking


Lighter Touch With Barrels

December 2009
by Stephen Yafa
Oak barrels
At twice the size of a regular barrel, 500-plus-liter puncheons provide less contact between wine and oak, resulting in a cleaner, fresher style preferred by many Pinot winemakers.

There’s way too much domestic Pinot Noir out there that could easily be mistaken for Syrah, the man on the other end of the phone is saying. “It’s over-extracted and over-oaked.” His job, as he sees it, is to help winemakers precisely match barrel to grape variety -- and beyond that, to match barrel to each winemaker’s individual style. His name is Paul Frommelt, sales director for barrel makers Trust, Treuil, Marc Kennel and A.P. John Coopers.

We’re talking about recent trends in oak usage -- barrel regimens, treatments, all things wooden that affect a consumer’s enjoyment of well-made wines. Frommelt notes a development that has swayed many winemakers toward exerting a lighter touch with oak. “Wine prices are going down in our current economy, but barrel prices aren’t. So in the case of Pinot, for instance, that means that some wineries are backing off from 60% new French oak to more like 30% to 40%. To me that’s good for the grape variety, no matter what the reason. These wines are not so heavy; there are less tannins and there’s more cinnamon spiciness, softness and a more delicate color.”

Oak in any wine, ideally, never calls attention to itself. It’s there to embellish, to coax out the wine’s essential qualities, very much as a film director elicits an actor’s best performance and sets it in an authentically credible milieu. I recently checked with a dozen artisan winemakers and cooperage agents, including Frommelt, to find out if for any reason -- monetary or stylistic or who-knows-why -- they noticed or experimented with any marked changes in the use of oak for recent crushes.

I was sniffing out trends, and I came away with a noseful of contradictory conclusions. What was I thinking? Put 12 winemakers in the same room and you’ll come away with 13 opinions, all passionately expounded. Still, there surfaced several tendencies (read: trends-in-the-making).

One is the increased confidence in American oak, based on major improvements during the past few years in its care and handling. Not a savvy match for Pinot Noir, maybe, but now American oak is routinely trusted to coddle Petite Sirah, Syrah, Zinfandel and other hearty reds.

Another is the emerging use of puncheons, with a capacity about twice that of a typical Burgundy or Bordeaux barrel (500-plus liters compared to 225 liters, or about 25 cases). Pinot Noir producer Mike Etzel at Beaux Freres in Newberg, Ore., is one among many winemakers who favor puncheons for the cleaner, fresher wine they deliver.

“People are finding ways to age wine that showcase the fruit,” says Jason Stout, global sales manager for Cooperages 1912. Decreasing wood-to-wine contact while costing less per gallon of capacity, puncheons add subtler, less obtrusive oak components like vanillin and smokiness.

“There’s also a trend to better oak,” he adds. “Smoke is becoming more of a negative, as are excessive tannins, especially in Pinot Noir. We heat our barrels to higher temperatures than in the past to provide good tannic penetration, but we also do it more slowly. Heat blisters freak people out. We want to create a toasty barrel that isn’t overly smoky. Those days of Cab barrels that tasted and smelled like bacon have gone by the wayside.”

All that may seem more like common sense than a shift in direction, but anyone who’s followed wine trends for a few decades knows that since the era of big oak, big alcohol and big fruit arrived in the 1990s, it has translated into more sales. When that happens, common sense usually ends up on the cutting room floor. High ratings most often trump restraint -- that is, until restraint shows signs of coming back into vogue, which is currently the case.

Or, in the words of seasoned wine producer Doug Nalle, “If you hang around a train station long enough, the train will eventually pull in again. I’ve been sitting there all this time.” At Nalle Winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, he’s been producing Zinfandel the same way for 25 years: with a light touch that keeps alcohol levels under 14%. Nalle ages his Zin in medium-plus toasted barrels with “no carpenter shop character,” just long enough to impart a hint of spice, elegant roundness and understated tannic structure.

“Wine makes you smart” reads a thought balloon above a whimsical Bob Johnson illustration of a wine bottle dressed as a sommelier on Nalle’s blissfully unorthodox website. He is a sworn enemy of pretension and fruit bombs -- “at odds with 90% of what’s out there from California,” he explains. “But I’m not a pissant.” No, he’s just a natural-born contrarian. He and his winemaking son, Andrew, use 30% new French oak on their small output of Russian River Pinot, and seek out a house style from cooperages that complements their delicate approach.

Barrels for Belle Glos 

Joseph Wagner, the grandson of legendary Caymus Vineyards founder Charlie Wagner in Rutherford, Calif., devotes his winemaking efforts to Belle Glos Pinot Noir, named for his late grandmother, Charlie’s wife.

His meticulous and somewhat eccentric use of oak on his Pinot reflects years of hard-won knowledge through experimentation. He looks for steam-bent oak from French coopers, who also soak on milling to reduce harsh tannins. Wagner buys his barrels early in the year to strip them, adding water for up to four months to further reduce tannic components.

“I’ve tried a dozen approaches,” he explains, “and the simpler turn out to be the better. I want sweetness and low impact. I pump-over to leave the coarser elements of my fruit behind, then age in 60% new French oak from Boutes, DJ (Dargaud and Jaegle), Treuil and Vernou. But I put the wine on oak for nine months only, that’s it. The last thing I want is over-extracted wine. I see a lot of Pinots going in the same direction these days.”


At Opus One in Napa Valley -- the ultra-premium Bordeaux varietal winery founded by Robert Mondavi and partner Baron Philippe de Rothschild -- winemaker Michael Silacci devotes as much time to his barrel selection as he does to any other phase of the winemaking process. From February to April he invites up to 14 cooperage representatives to taste his wines in barrel, “to become part of our team,” and offer suggestions on how to customize their seasoning and toasting techniques to more fully integrate their tonnelleries’ wood into Silacci’s wines. “Oak,” Silacci says, “is a pedestal upon which you set the fruit. We look for oak that doesn’t mask, that adds subtle layers of sandalwood, espresso and chocolate, as well as supple mouthfeel.”

He, too, has noticed a trend to less aggressive oak regimens in recent vintages for all varieties. “Coopers are really beginning to understand how to season (air-dry) wood to give us those subtle hints of spice we’re after in oak that impart a hint of caramelized sweetness as well.”

One of Silacci’s vendors is Tonnellerie Saury, whose general manager in Oakville, Calif., is Bayard Fox. “I think most changes in winemaking styles these days are based on economic hardship,” Fox says. “There are always people out there who will want extracted cocktail wines, but even those aren’t selling. The crux of the matter is that winemakers are cutting back on oak -- American, Eastern European and French -- for budgetary reasons, and plenty of wineries will be spinning their stories to base that decision on stylistic considerations. Either way, I hope it leads to more reflection on the wine in the glass, and less of a billboard for coopers.”

Laurence Cheftel, U.S. agent for Tonnellerie Sylvain in Napa, agrees that lower price-points for wine have led directly to cutting back barrel purchases -- especially since the dollar lost much of its muscle against the euro. “Larger wineries are going much more to staves and other alternatives, while smaller wineries are trying not to change. Myself, I believe more oak isn’t always better. I’ve seen a trend as well to less heavy toasting than in the past, and more weathering. I’ve also seen more understanding recently that the fineness of the grain matters more than the forest source.”

Probably for as long as winemakers have known the compatibility of wood and wine -- that is, from at least the 13th century in Burgundy -- there’s been an ongoing love-hate relationship between man and tree. Budgetary issues aside, the right application of oak continues to bring out the qualities of a great wine like nothing else, while a misguided approach still transforms a potentially great wine into a popsicle stick.

In both fat times and lean, adept winemakers develop an intimate, personal relationship with their barrels that wise lovers, wives and children are careful not to come between. That’s no trend at all. It’s a lifetime commitment, for better or worse.

Stephen Yafa produces limited release Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley for his winery, Segue Cellars, To comment on this article, e-mail

Editor's note: A reference in the December issue article “Lighter Touch With Barrels” incorrectly referred to Paul Frommelt as U.S. sales director for Tonnellerie François Frères. Mel Knox has held that position since 1980. Paul Frommelt is the sales director for Trust, Treuil and AP John Barrels, all owned by the François Frères group.

Posted on 12.21.2009 - 09:27:27 PST
Last time I checked I represented Francois Freres in the USA. Is Paul trying to tell me something??
Mel Knox
San Francisco, CA USA

Posted on 12.21.2009 - 12:29:35 PST
The reference to who directs sales of Francois Freres barrels in the United States was in error, and has been corrected in the online article. We regret the mistake.
The Editor
San Rafael, CA USA

Posted on 12.01.2009 - 12:43:08 PST
I learned the wine-coopering trade working at Tonnellerie Demptos in the mid 1970s. When I did my apprenticeship at the cooperage in Cambes, the practice of "toasting" wine barrels was not a part of the process - anywhere. Barrel toasting, as well as every other innovation in the cooperage trade over the last 35 years, was conceived of and driven by winemakers. Coopers are perpetually playing catch-up.
Keith Roberts, Master Cooper
Foster's Wine Estates, Americas
Cloverdale, CA USA