Ok, so…..harvest is over, nobody is running around like a chicken with its head cut off anymore, winery and vineyard folks are getting a full night’s sleep again, taking vacations, and going back to regular work hours. However, this doesn’t mean the work stops. Oh no...there is still much to do off the crushpad! This is the time when all those lovely new wines that were just fermented and pressed need to go into barrels. This is barrel down time in the cellar!
Barreling down is the industry term for racking wine from tanks into barrels (and racking is the term for transferring the clarified wine off of its heavier solids). Of course, not all wines age in barrels---many will get minimal aging in tank, or some other type of non-wood vessel, but most will go to oak barrels. As you may know, and as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, aging in oak is done to enhance the texture, flavor, aromas, and color of the wine….a sort of seasoning of the wine. It also helps protect the wine from oxidation (as long as they are kept full), and yet at the same time prevents reduction by allowing the right amount of oxygen seep through the wood grain pores. There is also the extra bonus of oxidation protection in the form of tannins in newer oak.
To barrel a wine down, the winemaker must first choose which barrels they want the wine to age in. This may involve a combination of neutrality of the oak (the more a wine has been soaking in a barrel, the more neutral it becomes in terms of its sensorial influence), origin of the oak (what country, region, and forest the wood came from), and toast level of the oak. Even the cooperage, the company that produces the barrels, can contribute to the final influence. A winemaker can either make an educated guess as to what they want, or base their choice on years of experimentation with different combinations to determine what works the best for their taste. For this reason, many winemakers will taste each barrel in their barrel room at least once a year and make detailed notes on the results (I know, it’s a rough job, but somebody’s got to do it!).
Once the barrels are chosen, they need to be cleaned. Storing empty barrels requires them to be protected from drying out and the staves shrinking and gaps forming, and also from bacteria forming inside. The prefered protection is sulfur, either in the form of sulfur gas, a sulfur stick that you burn inside the barrel like incense, or a solution of sulfur and citric acid. I prefer the latter, because it’s the safest and easiest to work with, and does the double duty of preventing the wood from drying out. Because sulfur is used, they need to be washed thoroughly with steam and/or hot water, pressurized and shot through a spray ball. This is also where you will discover leaks in the barrels, if any, and those can generally be plugged with wooden spiles, or perhaps the grain just needs to expand a little with moisture. Sometimes, if the barrels have dried out and shrunken too much, the hoops will become loose and need to be hammered down towards the center of the barrel to tighten the staves again. Once the barrels have been maintained and they have come back to room temperature, they can be filled.
To rack wine, the suction-end hose must be positioned just above the solids which have collected at the bottom of the tank (otherwise, it’s just a straight transfer of the wine). This is determined by attaching a sight glass in line with the hoses and pump, and slowly lowering the hose into the wine while watching for solids entering the sight glass. The barrels can then be filled until the pump is no longer sucking wine. A look into the tank should reveal the solids clearly, there should be no more clear wine on top of them. This is also a great time to adjust pH and SO2 levels if needed, as the filling of the barrels creates a mixing action, which ensures a homogenous mixture. Once full, the barrels are sealed with bungs (silicone stoppers) to prevent oxidation, contamination, and evaporation. They are then labeled to show the contents and stacked in the barrel room.
This is how the wines will spend most of their life before bottling. Reds will generally age anywhere from 6 months to several years, whites will age anywhere from 6 months to 18 months, give or take. They are usually only disturbed for racking, age evaluation, or topping and sulfuring, which I will discuss in the next Cellar Series blog.