The Barrel Experiment

The Line-Up

In order to stay ahead of the curve, and out of the inexhaustible need to experiment, Winemaker Kevin Sass takes the staff on a quarterly journey through a line up of barrels.  This practice is, in fact, common between barrel producers (coopers) and wineries, but it is a special treat for our staff to be included.  The process goes thus:

A series of barrels from various producers in varying styles (different levels of toast*, specific forest of origin etc.) are all filled with the same wine from the same vintage.  In our case we had 17 oak barrels, 1 neutral (as control), 2 New American, and 14 New French.  The wine we used was 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Block 41 in the eastern corner of our vineyard.  The task was to taste through them all and choose the top 3 and the bottom 2 among the French barrels, the preferred barrel between the two American, and to record overall impressions of each.

*To define our terms before embarking further:

Toast-refers to the degree a barrel was heated over a small bier during its construction.  The ‘toastier’ a barrel is the more it will typically impart a caramelized or ‘spicy’ flavor on wine aged in it.

Neutral-as an oak descriptor refers to a barrel that has seen at least one full season of aging with a wine.  As a result it imparts less flavor on subsequent wines.

New-refers to a barrel that is fresh out of the cooperage and in its first season of aging wine.

The various coopers we use, or are in consideration of using, send representatives to taste through with the winemaker.  They are challenged to identify which barrels are theirs.  After everyone has tasted through notes are compared and ultimately, it is revealed which barrel belongs to who.

Molly and Lucas focusing

It was fascinating to experience the varying impact a barrel may have on a wine based on the characteristics of each.  In this case, as a result of the cold 2011 summer, the wine in question had high acid and a more old world or cool climate character filled with dark brambly fruit, a cascade of lingering earthy tones, and a hint of vegetable edge one might typically associate with young Bordeaux.

Wine from the neutral barrel was predictably showing the characteristics described above, but distinction in flavor profile among the rest of the running was pronounced and stunning.  Some barrels seemed to impart very little character on the wine while others seemed to dominate it.  Surprisingly one of the ‘low impact’ barrels was American, this runs against the grain (haha!) given the higher concentration of Lactones (responsible for ‘oaky’ flavor) in the wood from American Oaks.  Higher impact barrels seemed to alter the texture of the wine, possibly by masking its acidity, lending a creamy mouthfeel and sweet spicy zest to the flavor profile.  Overall the staff seemed to prefer the higher impact barrel in the American pair.  Within the French group preferences were more varied but the barrels that received the most votes were those that provided the creamy texture mentioned prior while maintaining a pleasant balance between the character of the wine and that of the barrel.  It is important to note that the impact of a barrel and the character it will contribute to a final wine changes as the wine ages inside.  To account for this, Kevin revisits the experiment quarterly leading up to the point when the wine is bottled before making any final choices about barrels to use for the following season.

As always, thank you for reading and don’t hesitate to hit us up with questions or comments!

Not so Neat Notes

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3 Responses to The Barrel Experiment

  1. Just another reason why I love Halter Ranch wines, and have for some time. Paying attention to the details, and involving everyone. What a great team building experience.

  2. Tomislav Veseljak says:

    very very good post!!!

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