Barrels Part 2
In classical times wine was aged in large wooden casks or tanks, and barrels were used primarily for transport. Over the centuries, winemakers learned that particular liquors age better in specific barrel types. Now there are over 150 sizes and shapes of barrels. Our type of wine is usually aged in 300 liter barrels, or about 80 gallons. (In fact Andre Tchelistcheff, our winemaker Dimitiri’s father, was an early advocate for aging California wines in small barrels – now common practice.) Besides the barrel capacity, the stave thickness, surface area, oak nuances, type of wine and winemaker’s style all influence barrel selection.
A standard, modern wine barrel is made of about 33 staves of various widths. To achieve the barrel shape, broad in the middle and narrowing at both ends, the staves are trimmed into a double taper and places on end in a circle around a medal form, creating an inverted skirt. Hoops are placed on the bottom to hold the shape, and the skirt of staves if flipped right side up and placed over a small fire to heat the staves so they are easier to bend. A cable is wrapped around the wide end of the skirt and cinched tight, bending the staves into the barrel shape. Several hoops are then driven into place to hold the final selected and the bung hole is drilled into its center, providing access for filling and cleaning.
Now that the staves are pulled together into a barrel shape, and before the heads are installed, the barrel is placed over a small fire to toast or caramelize the inside with three basic levels of toasting; light, medium or heavy.
At Jarvis, we use a “Medium plus” toasting that imparts wonderful vanilla, caramel, roasted hazelnut and chocolate flavors. Toasting helps soften and refine the aromas and flavors imparted by the barrel, enhancing the elegance of the wine.
The barrel heads are made of five to six staves held together with dowels. Between each stave is a tulle reed that helps seal the head. Both heads are then toasted then fit into a groove in the barrel called a croze and secured with a dough made of water and flour. The barrels are then wrapped in plastic to help maintain the sixteen percent moisture of the wood during storage and shipping.
At Jarvis we grow the five major Bordeaux varietal grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) and the Chardonnay of Burgundy.
The Bordeaux style barrels used for our red wines have thin staves which by reason of some oxygen penetration of the wood helps impart more of the soft vanilla and toasty nuances into the wine. We typically barrel age Cabernet Sauvignon for 22 Months, and our other red varietals around 18 months.
The Burgundian style barrels used for our Chardonnay have thicker staves to slow the oxygen infusion and limit the oak flavors, so that the wine doesn’t become over oaked. Aside from the capacity and stave bilge, aids in the collection of lees during aging, this is important for aging Chardonnay in the Sur-Lie method that we observe here at Jarvis. We stir the lees once a week during the aging in the barrel which softens the Chardonnay flavor. Our Chardonnay spends 9 months, both fermenting and aging, in the same barrel.
As you may recall from Part I, each forest, and even sections within the forest (terroir), has slightly different nuances caused by the variation in soil composition and microclimate. SO not only does the style of the barrel matter, the terroir is important as well. At Jarvis the Bordeaux style barrels are made from the Nevers forest in France and the Burgundian style barrels are a blend of oak staves from the Center, Vosges and Argonne forests of France.
Making strong use of Dimitiri’s lifetime of experience, William Jarvis tried nine different barrel types, blind tasting the wine during different parts of the aging cycle, and finally chose three barrel types. Among these was the Louis Latour used for Chardonnay, the most costly of all barrels – wouldn’t you know it. For uniformity of product we continue to use these same types of barrels each year.
At Jarvis we use new barrels for each vintage. This is the theory of the tea bag. The first time you use a tea bag, you get a onetime flavor and aroma. But this one time usage comes at a price: barrels are our largest expense item at the winery costing from $550 to $750 each. After one vintage of use, we sell them for approximately $200-$300.
At Jarvis, Dimitri follows Andre Tchelistcheff’s sage advice, "wine should be primarily fruit driven…use oak in such a way that it is an additive to the fruit rather that dominating it.”