Wine in Wood

Wood is the natural birthplace of wine. This is the winegrower’s credo. As he toils in the winery, cleaning what at times seems an endless row of wine barrels, he reminds himself that this effort is important, that the wine is worthy of the work. He remembers the taste, the bouquet, the feeling on his tongue of the barrel fermented wines he loves. And he rolls the next barrel into place with grace and love, his touch a caress.

It is early morning in October, harvest is happening, and the winegrower is preparing barrels to receive the new wine. Each year he ferments his Vignoles wine in 60 gallon oak barrels. He uses some new barrels, and some older barrels. This morning he is readying a group of 12 barrels, 4 new and 8 older barrels. As he works, the harvest crew is beginning their day’s work, picking Vignoles grapes.

Later today, the winegrower will crush and destem those grapes, putting the resulting must into tanks, and sealing it away from the air, to rest for 48 hours. This time, with the crushed grapes, their skins and pulp and seeds and juice all together, this skin contact time, is important for the grower’s wine – it allows the juice to soak out flavors and aromas from the skins. Two days from now, the must will be pressed, separating the juice from the skins, pulp, and seeds. That juice will be pumped from the press to a tank, where yeast will be added. And overnight the fermentation will begin, the yeast beginning to consume the sugars in the grape juice, transforming the juice into wine. As soon as that fermentation begins, the winegrower will pump the fermenting liquid into barrels.

The barrels the winegrower has chosen to use today will receive the juice from Vignoles picked yesterday, to be pressed tomorrow. This group of barrels include 2 new barrels made from oak grown in the United States. Each of these barrels has stave wood from several different forests in various Midwestern states, making each barrel a sort of polyglot representation of America, with the subtly different aromas and flavors of Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Minnesota, Ohio and Illinois oaks mixed in each barrel. The other 2 new oak barrels in today’s group are products of a French cooperage, made from oak grown in the center of France, in the Allier forest. All 4 new barrels will contribute flavors and bouquet to the wine, these new barrels especially giving a toasty character from the freshly toasted interior of the barrel. The barrel maker, the cooper, forms the barrel around a fire, the heat of the oak-fueled fire allowing him to bend the staves into shape. He leaves the barrel in place with the fire inside until the inner surface of the barrel has been toasted by the fire. Different winegrowers have different ideas about the amount of toasting they desire, so the cooper produces barrels with three levels of toast: light, medium and heavy. This winegrower prefers heavy toast – the bouquet of which is taken into the wine, adding the smoky, toasty nuances he loves.

These 4 new barrels are rolled onto their sides, bungs up, and the light weight wooden shipping bung is removed and discarded. Bending over each barrel, the winegrower moves his nose to the bung and sniffs. The sweet, clean smell is assurance that the new barrel is sound and fit for use. He fills each barrel with water, and will leave the barrels full overnight to make certain that there are no leaks.

The remaining 8 barrels in this group will require more rigorous attention. They have been used before, and bear a greater risk of being unsound. With age, leaks sometimes develop. Two of these 8 barrels were new last year, one American oak and one French oak, this wood from the Troncais forest. Four of the barrels were first used by the winegrower two years ago; they are all French oak, two from Vosges and and one each from Nevers and Limousin. And the final two barrels are much older, five year old barrels of American oak. This array of barrel ages means that each barrel will contribute differing amounts of flavor to the wine – the newest barrels yield up the greatest amount of flavor, the older barrels proportionately less. The five year old barrels have very little oak flavor to contribute. But like instruments in an orchestra, each barrel has it’s own important part to play in filling out the spectrum of flavors and aromas that will be the finished Vignoles wine.

The various sources of the wood, the American forests and the several French forests – Allier, Nevers, Troncais, Limousin and Vosges, contribute differing flavors. All of the barrels are made from white oak, and therefore similar. But just as the same grape variety grown in two different areas of the world produces wines that are similar, there are distinct differences as well. The soils and climate in which the oak tree grows influence the proportions of the various flavor compounds, the phenolics, of the wood. Then, too, tighter grained oak, from trees that have grown more slowly, gives up it’s flavor to the wine more slowly than more open-grained oak from trees that have grown more rapidly. The winegrower enjoys the depth of flavor, the complexity, offered by wines aged in many different barrels made from oak grown in many different places.

These eight barrels were emptied in July of the wines they held from last year’s harvest. They were carefully cleaned with hot water and sanitized by burning in each barrel a bit of sulfur, producing sulfur dioxide, to protect against mold or bacterial growth in the empty barrel. They have been resting, empty and sealed, since then.

The winegrower removes the working bungs, of silicone rubber, from these barrels. Once again, his nose goes to work, smelling each barrel to assure himself that nothing has harmed the barrel during the empty time. A faint sulfury odor is good, woody smells are good, vinegary odors are bad. These all smell good. His barrel light is brought out, and he looks into each barrel, visually confirming the condition of the interior. Then the barrels are filled with water, to soak out the sulfur dioxide and to assure that they will not leak when the fermenting juice goes into them tomorrow.

After resting overnight, filled with water, all the barrels are rolled over to empty, then rolled to the barrel washer to be rinsed with hot water. They are then rolled and lifted into place in the barrel stack before being filled with the fermenting Vignoles juice.

And as that fermenting juice, birthing wine, enters the barrel – the natural nursery of wine – the scents of grapes, yeast and oak mingle. The winegrower inhales, and smiles. The transformation has begun. All is well.

-Copyright 1996 L. Mawby