The 2020 Colorado wine conference featured speakers who offered information on a variety of winemaking and grape growing topics and techniques. From how yeast exactly works to wine flaws and faults, to how to make sparkling wine via the Charmat method, there was plenty of knowledge to absorb. The wonderful thing about winemaking is that there are so many variations in the process that affect your end product and display your style. Here at Buckel Family Wine, we believe in making old-world style wines that are able to show the true character of the grape and of the terroir. We achieve this by using minimal intervention in the winemaking process, meaning less additives and no filtering for our red wines.
One process that most people are familiar with however is barrel aging. Tim Donahue, Executive Director of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College in Washington State presented on the the influence of oak in winemaking. He explained the barrel making process from oak seedling to finished product (which takes a long time as you could imagine), and how barrels can be used to benefit your wine.
Specific species of oak trees are grown in different geographic areas, resulting in varying characteristics that they impart on the wine.The biggest difference is between French (or European) oak and American oak. These types of oak can influence wines quite differently, usually the French being more subtle and spicy and the American being more bold with notes of coconut. Once the oak is harvested, it is cut into staves and left outside to cure for up to two years. Once cured, the staves are assembled into the beginnings of a barrel and are then toasted. The toasting process is another key component of how the barrel influences the wine. The heavier the toast, the more intense the barrel imparts flavors on the wine. In their early years, barrels impart a stronger influence in the wine’s flavor profile. After a few years, the intensity of the oak dissipates. For bolder wines, one might choose a newer barrel. For more delicate, subtle wines, one might opt for an older barrel.
For our wines, we choose French oak barrels that have already seen a few years of use. This allows us to age our wines for up to 18 months without overpowering the wine’s inherent flavor profile, and allows the oak to gently smooth out the tannins over time. We end up with a wine that has balanced characteristics and is ready to drink or age gracefully in bottle. Upon receiving barrels new to us, we make sure to take good care of them so that we can use them well. This means cleaning, rehydrating, tightening up the leakers. Once the barrels are full of wine, we check on them and top them up regularly to prevent space for oxidation or for unwanted yeast/bacteria to take over.