A Word From the Publisher
And the Wine Wizard is.......
“When will my fermentation stop?” “Why did my fermentation stop?” One thing I can count on as publisher of WineMaker magazine is that each day winemakers will email us asking for help and looking for answers. When WineMaker launched in 1998, we realized the importance of answering reader questions and we were lucky to bring Alison Crowe on board as our Wine Wizard right from the Premier issue. Fresh out of the University of California-Davis’ renowned enology program, Alison brought a wealth of wisdom — as well as a sense of humor — to her answers. Since then, Alison has answered literally hundreds of questions spanning the world of winemaking and has made Wine Wizard our readers’ favorite department in the magazine. Likewise, the “Wine Wizard Question of the Week” section of winemakermag.com is among the most visited areas of our website.
Until now, only a handful of people knew Alison was the Wine Wizard. Like the identity of most superheroes, we decided it would be fun to keep her identity a secret. Many of her co-workers and friends in the wine industry did not even know of her double life.
However, with the new release of her book, “The Winemaker’s Answer Book” (Storey Publishing), we thought it was time for Alison to get her due — so now the secret is out! Her book is a collection of questions and answers from the last eight year’s worth of the Wine Wizard, covering all aspects of making wine at home. For this issue, Alison has handpicked 10 of her favorite questions from over the years. As you’ve learned from her column, you can definitely learn more about making super wine from this “superhero.”
Brad Ring, Publisher, WineMaker
A Letter From the Wizard
Winemaking is equally a science and an art. That is really why I ventured into the world of winemaking. I wanted to devote my life to a career that would keep me firmly rooted in the sciences and yet allow me to channel my love of the arts. Pursuing a winemaking career — starting with getting a degree from the University of California-Davis’ Department of Viticulture & Enology, while working summers at wineries around California — seemed the right place to start.
I already had a few harvests under my belt when an email came through the department asking for contributors to a new magazine called WineMaker. Because appending my email address to my inaugural Q&A column flooded my inbox with questions, we decided to go “underground,” routing all questions through the magazine’s office and making our mysterious and anonymous “Wine Wizard” the star of the show.
At nights and on weekends, trying to avoid the busy harvest season by pre-writing a column or two, I’ve had fun being the Wine Wizard (amusingly, whom many readers assumed was a gentleman of a certain age), helping everyday people make better wine and dispensing homeopathic doses of winemaking — and wine enjoyment — philosophy along the way. As better material and equipment became available, I gently encouraged readers to evolve as well, to apply the same cutting-edge professional techniques to their few barrels at home that I was employing in my “day jobs” as a winemaker.
I probably owe my ability to answer just about any winemaking question to the fact that I’ve made a wide variety of wine over the past twelve years. My first ever harvest job was as a cellar rat at Chalone Vineyard on California’s beautiful central coast while I was still a UC Davis enology student. I pulled hoses, sanitized tanks, squished Pinot Noir samples and generally got sticky, sweaty and really dirty . . . and I loved it. After graduation with a degree in Fermentation Science in 1998, I refined my Pinot, Chardonnay and Cab-making skills while working at Byington Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Though still (and always) a Pinot Noir lover, in 1999 I turned my attention to Rhônes and other esoteric varietals at the iconoclastic Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, CA, starting out as their Enologist but quickly working up the ranks to Associate Winemaker. In my four and a half years there, the winery grew from 120,000 case production to over half a million, championed the use of screwcaps in premium California wines and launched new products like Freisa Frizzante, Moscate Frizzante and the Port-style Syrah, Boutielle Call, all which I helped pioneer. There was nothing like the sheer variety in hand punching down a 5-gallon (19 L) bucket of Teraldego or fine tuning old vine Mourvèdre (Bonny Doon’s famous “Old Telegram”) to make me appreciate that wine comes in all colors, sizes, styles and persuasions.
Wanting to put my Spanish degree from UC Davis (I double-majored) to better use, as well as to get some appreciation for Malbec, my husband (photographer Chris Purdy) and I flew down to Argentina for a harvest at Bodegas Salentein in Mendoza. There I had the great luck to be able to work with Michel Rolland, perhaps the world’s most famous consulting winemaker, as well as Salentein’s talented Head Winemaker, Laureano Gomez. After months of wonderful wines, scenery and hospitality, I was left with the impression that Argentina’s Mendoza is definitely a winemaking region to watch; they have the potential to be the next big player in the world’s quality winemaking scene.
Today I’ve continued my tradition of working with a wide variety of grapes and wine types. My current Napa, California-based company, Plata Wine Partners, has vineyard holdings all over California and it’s my responsibility and privilege to turn into wine such exciting varietals as Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley, Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County and Chardonnay from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. I make everything from two-barrel lots up to blends that contain many thousands of gallons. Each harvest is an adventure and my day to day winemaking tasks and activities serve as constant inspiration to me as I continue to write about winemaking for the commercial wine industry (I’m a frequent contributor to Wine Business Monthly and other publications) as well as for the small-scale micro-producer.
Today, general interest in wine has never been higher and winemaking remains one of the fastest-growing pursuits in North America. People are more wine-savvy than ever, and the intrepid readers of WineMaker magazine are leading the charge. Largely distant from the commercial wine world of glossy magazines, luxury resorts and touristy tasting rooms, it is the small-scale and hobbyist producer that to me represents the true creative, curious soul of winemaking. Throughout my own seasons in the wine business, the Wine Wizard columns have always been a welcome chance to give back and, perhaps, look back; being a bi-monthly “consulting winemaker” to home winemakers across North America re-connects me to my own first harvests and the excitement I felt as I began learning about the art and science of this beautiful thing we call wine. Thank you for all of the wonderful questions over the years — I look forward to answering many more.
“The Wine Wizard”
Top 10 Wine Wizard Questions:
1. What are the top five rookie mistakes to avoid in winemaking?
Brooklyn, New York
That’s a great request. Just like anything in life, having a concentrated, bullet-pointed list of the essence of a thing is very important. So here goes:
Top five rookie mistakes:
Picking too early or too late: I can’t say this enough — it all starts with the raw material. Pick too early and your Cabernet will never lose that nasty green bell pepper aroma. Pick too late and your delicate Malvasia Bianca will be a flabby, high pH flop with 15.0% alcohol. Making the pick call is the single most important decision a fresh grape winemaker will make in a wine’s life — be sure you make it right. Do be informed by analysis (Brix, pH and TA) but even more importantly, use your taste buds.
If you’re a home winemaker getting someone’s second crop, try to let it hang on the vine as long as you can to lose some of that acid and get to the flavor profile you’re looking for.
Inappropriate must adjustment: Acid, water, enzymes, nutrients, tannins, bentonite, sulfur dioxide. The list of things we can add to our freshly-crushed grapes is too long to enumerate. Many beginning winemakers believe that the more “tweaks” and additions they make, the better their wine will be.
I try to keep my winemaking minimalist and think about using additives only when the grapes really call for it. The idea is to get such good grapes that you don’t have to add anything at all.
Not understanding the destructive power of oxygen and spoilage microbes: After the carbon dioxide from the primary and secondary fermentation blows off, your wine is vulnerable to attack by oxygen and spoilage yeast and bacteria. Leaving wine uncovered, untopped or unprotected by insufficient sulfur dioxide is asking for trouble. When a wine is actively fermenting it can be roughed up, left uncovered and moved around without much worry. Once a wine goes still, it’s critical to protect it.
Not understanding the constructive power of oxygen and good microbes: Believe it or not, oxygen is critical for a wine’s early development. A healthy fermentation actually needs oxygen to perform its best and young wines can benefit from an aerative racking in the first months of life. Good microbes like yeast and certain strains of lactic acid bacteria are your partners in the fine winemaking process. Learn how to actively manage their interactions with your wine.
Keeping inadequate records: So much in winemaking seems to happen by chance — the weather influences the grapes, a cold cellar can slow down a fermentation and a random spoilage yeast can invade a perfectly good wine. To maximize the level of control you have over your wines, keep good records during the winemaking process. Only by logging in dates, treatments, wine analysis and tasting notes do we learn what works, what doesn’t and how to improve.
2. I am looking for some general advice. Could you share your wisdom with me and offer some essential winemaking rules?
Cambridge, New York
This is a question that more people should ask when getting into a hobby. It also serves as a natural follow-up to my previous answer. It is good to look at the total picture of winemaking and focus in on the most important elements.
It all starts with the raw material: Your wine will only be as good as your starting material. It’s possible to make good wine out of great fruit, but you can’t make great wine out of mediocre fruit.
An ancillary rule is that you’ve got to understand and accept your starting material, both its potential and its limitations. An insipid wine can’t grow beyond its roots, even with all the expensive and time-consuming treatments in the world.
Acid is the foundation of wine: I learned this at my first-ever winemaking job as a cellar rat at Chalone Vineyards near Monterey, California. Even in the blasting 100 °F (38 °C) days, the incredible limestone soils and the chilly nights kept the acid levels in the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay much higher than one would expect.
Sugar is only important in determining the final alcohol content. Fine wines should be picked and made with the true focus being on the pH, TA and flavor/tannin/texture balance of the acids.
Learn the science behind the art: Don’t just blindly follow a recipe that says to add 30 ppm sulfur dioxide. Take classes, study on the web, learn from experienced winemakers, do whatever you can to learn why you add that 30 ppm sulfur dioxide. More importantly, you should know when to add 30 ppm, when to add 50 ppm and when to add none at all. Knowledge and experience will allow you to be guided by what the wine needs and not by what someone tells you it does.
Listen to your wine: Let the wine tell you what it needs and where it wants to go. Once the grapes are picked, the path the wine needs to take is already laid out before you. A super-corpulent 30 ºBrix Syrah would have a hard time squeezing itself into the bottle as a crisp, light Syrah rosé. Such ripe, luscious fruit really wants to be the base for a stellar Port-style dessert wine. Don’t force it. Go where the wine leads you.
Don’t take wine, or yourself, too seriously: Even those of us who make wine as our day job need to remember that wine is, at its core, supposed to be fun.
3. Why are cleaning and sanitation so important?
Wine is food. It is absolutely critical to have good winery sanitation, as dirty equipment invites spoilage bacteria and unwanted yeast beasties to munch on our wine. There is a point of diminishing returns, however. I have seen some winemakers go overboard with the microbe-killing, so let me share some information that’ll allow you to make sanitizing decisions appropriate to your situation.
First, a vocabulary review: The terms cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing are not interchangeable.
Cleaning refers to the physical removal of visible soil. Sanitizing means treating a surface or piece of equipment to reduce the microbial load to an acceptable level. Sterilizing means that equipment is made to be completely free of bacteria or other microorganisms, something that is not applicable to wineries, home or commercial.
Why don’t wineries attempt to sterilize, you ask? For one thing, it is practically impossible and for another, it is not necessary. Due to their low pH and high alcohol content, most wines already have some natural resistance to spoilage organisms. As any disgruntled brewer will tell you, most bacteria (and even some fungi) aren’t that happy in the pH range of wine (3.0–3.75), but will thrive in a higher pH environment, such as that of beer (4.0–6.0) or water (7.0). That being said, there are some microorganisms that do like to hang around in the wine environment, so it is important to practice a sensible cleaning and sanitizing program in your winery.
4. What are some keys to make Rhône-style wines from grapes?
Rhône reds are generally 100% destemmed. However, leaving a few whole clusters, especially in Syrah, will encourage a more red berry/fruity aromatic profile in addition to the normal pepper, smoke and earth profile. Fermentations should be cooler for Rhône reds than for that of Cabernets or Merlots though whites seem to do pretty well fermenting unchilled in neutral oak barrels. Aim for a maximum of 85 °F (29 °C) for reds and no more than 70 °F (21 °C) for whites.
Rhône reds, especially Syrah, Grenache and Carignane, don’t seem to need as much pumping over or punching down as Cabernet Sauvignon does. Just be sure to get enough air into the fermentation during the first few days you notice yeast activity and especially at the height of fermentation.
Extended maceration isn’t always the best choice for Rhônes as they don’t seem to improve like Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, etc) can with time. Some winemakers have success after about a week of contact on the skins, but it’s completely acceptable and traditional — and encourages malolactic fermentation to boot — if you press off warm and with about 1 °Brix left, and immediately put to barrel.
Post-fermentation, most Rhône reds and some Rhône whites are encouraged to go through the malolactic fermentation after the primary fermentation is over with. While the mouthfeel contributions that malolactic can contribute is welcome in most Rhône wine styles, some winemakers halt their whites with 30 ppm of sulfur dioxide in order to keep the floral, fruity and spicy characters from getting lost under gooey gobs of butter and vanilla. Maintaining the initial character of the fruit should be your first priority.
To that end, the single most important thing you can do to make your Rhône varietal wine taste more true-to-type is to use restraint with respect to oak. Most Rhône Valley wines are aged in neutral barrels that won’t contribute any appreciable “oakiness” to the wines. A robust Syrah or a meaty Mourvèdre might be better with a touch of oak character, but do realize that a little goes a long way.
Similarly, Rhône varietal fining is kept to a minimum and the most that true Rhône Valley or California Rhône-style wineries will do for reds is an egg white fining and for whites perhaps a little bentonite to pull out extra proteins before bottling. Some commercial whites are cold stabilized but not all winemakers feel the need to do even that.
5. I am a kit winemaker and want to make a sulfite-free wine because I am allergic to sulfites. How is this done and what should I be aware of?
Rochester, New York
It is impossible to make a sulfite-free wine, because wine yeast produce sulfur dioxide (SO2) during the fermentation process. Wines with no added sulfite contain from 6 to 40 ppm of sulfite, according to most experts. Furthermore, it’s likely that the concentrate in kit wines already got a dose of sulfur dioxide.
Before you toss out your kit, check with your physician to make sure that you really are allergic to sulfites. Only a small percentage of the population (approximately 0.01%) is truly allergic to sulfites. These people lack the enzyme sulfite oxidase and can’t metabolize sulfites. This small percentage of the population is also asthmatic. These individuals typically know they’re allergic from childhood and so know to avoid all foods and beverages that contain sulfites including, but not limited to, lunchmeats, processed salami, processed fruit juices, packaged seafood and dried fruits.
Sulfur dioxide gets a bad rap because of the government warning label on wine bottles that is only targeted to this select group of consumers. Furthermore, many people blame sulfites for symptoms that are often simply caused by alcohol. There has been some speculation in the medical community that histamines are a possible culprit of this “red wine malaise,” but there has been no conclusive evidence so far. Ironically, many consumers drink white wine, thinking red wines have more sulfites, when actually white wines typically do.
If you want to lessen the amount of sulfites you use in your wine, keep the following things in mind. Sulfur dioxide is used for two reasons: its anti-microbial ability and its antioxidant capacity. Therefore, if you want to use less of it, minimize the amount of microbes and oxygen that contact your wine in every stage of its life.
At the end of the day, using sulfites in winemaking is usually not a health issue. Judicious sulfite use can significantly increase the quality of your wine. International regulatory boards usually set legal levels at around 350 ppm total sulfur dioxide and most commercial wines are bottled with totals between 50-100 ppm. A little bit of SO2, used wisely, goes a long way and won’t hurt 9,999 out of 10,000 of us.
6. I test my wine musts for TA, but have learned from reading WineMaker that pH is also important. I know how to adjust my TA, but how do I adjust pH without changing the TA? What ingredient is used to do this?
Ask almost any commercial winemaker and they will say that pH is one of the most important — if not the most important — winemaking parameter. Even though TA is important for the way a wine will taste, and is certainly an important number, adequate pH numbers are even more critical to the microbial and chemical stability of wines.
To take pH into consideration, one must have a reliable way of measuring it. Unfortunately, pH meters are relatively expensive, but a good investment for the serious winemaker. Litmus strips are cheaper, but don’t do a decent job. The pH for healthy wines should be between 3.1 to 3.7. Any lower and your yeast or malolactic bacteria will not survive. Any higher and spoilage microbes will find your wine a welcome home.
Any way you slice it, it’s important to have a handle on your wine’s pH. Incidentally, the pH really cannot be manually adjusted without having an effect on the TA. Since they both rely on the hydrogen ion concentration in the wine, they are completely interconnected.
To raise the TA and lower the pH, most winemakers add acid in the form of purchased tartaric acid. Tartaric acid is one of the naturally present grape acids, and is not consumed by yeast or by any other microorganism in the winemaking process. What you add is what stays in the wine, unless it precipitates later with age or with cold stabilization.
Wines can be de-acidified by adding calcium or potassium carbonate. This is a laborious process and one that takes a certain amount of skill to accomplish. It is better to deal with ripe fruit in the beginning than to have to de-acidify later.
A much easier way to de-acidify is to use a malolactic fermentation. If your fruit source is high in malic acid (as in grapes and apples), then you can introduce commercial strains of lactic acid bacteria that will consume the malic acid and turn it into lactic acid, which is a “less acidic” acid than malic acid. This will raise the pH of your wine by one or two tenths of a point, often making the difference between a stable wine and an unstable one. Tartaric acid, pH meters, lactic acid bacteria and potassium bicarbonate are all available through winemaking catalogs and supply stores.
7. Could I make wine in an aquarium or would the glue cause a problem?
Thief River Falls, Minnesota
“This is the dawning of the age of Aquariums...” Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right. Well, no matter, because my advice is to refrain from serving eviction papers to your aquatic friends and use something strong and food-grade in which to ferment your wine. The glues and materials used to make aquariums are designed to stand up to a cool-water, neutral-pH and alcohol-free environment.
Aside from the materials not being appropriate from a chemical and food safety perspective, also think of it this way — winemaking, especially red winemaking, is a pretty violent process. Winemaking containers are made from stainless steel, thick oak or sturdy plastic for a reason. I’d hate to think how disappointed you’d be if, at the height of a raging fermentation, the contents of your tank spilled all over the floor.
8. I was wondering if you could help me understand what “surely” means when referring to winemaking. Something I read said it means, “on the yeast.” I still don’t understand. I have looked in several reference books, and have yet to even locate this term let alone find a definition.
Michael Ann Williams
I’m so glad you wrote with this question! How many of us have stood there baffled, not knowing what to do or where to turn, when faced with an unfamiliar wine term — usually written in another language! Well, here’s the answer to your question. What you’re describing as the word “surely” is really the French term “sur lie.” (You knew it would be French, didn’t you?) In French, “sur lie” (pronounced “sewr lee”) means “on the lees.” “Lees” is a general word for the gooey, gloppy, sludge-like deposit that collects on the bottom of a fermentation vessel — say, a barrel — after the yeast fermentation is done.
Let me give you a simple example of how this term applies to winemaking: A winemaker has just pressed a load of Chardonnay grapes and has siphoned the juice into a 35-gallon (132-L) barrel. She then adds some yeast, plugs the barrel with a fermentation lock and walks away. After about a week, the yeast will have eaten up the sugar in the grape juice and transformed it into ethyl alcohol. Once the bubbling action of the fermentation stops, we’re left with what we can now call “wine,” plus a sediment of fine grape particulates and dead yeast cells that we call the “lees.” If we don’t “rack” the wine (siphon it off the solids at the bottom) immediately after fermentation into a clean barrel and instead let the new wine just sit there “on the lees”, then we are aging the wine “sur lies.”
Aging a wine on the lees is traditionally used in Chardonnay production (though I’ve seen it in the making of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer, all white wines). Many winemakers feel it gives the wines more mouthfeel, body, and aromatic complexity. The dead yeast cells break down over time, releasing amino acids, proteins and other biological compounds into the wine. A former employer of mine would even stick a stainless steel rod into each barrel of Chardonnay as it aged “sur lies” and stir up this sediment, further enhancing the contact that the lees had with the wine in the barrel. He felt that this traditional French technique greatly enhanced the texture of his wines and imparted them with a richness not attainable by any other methods. If you work in the restaurant business you might appreciate the fact that “sur lies” aging, usually accompanied by barrel stirring, is a time-consuming process and can contribute to the quality — and the price — of the bottles of wine you might be serving.
9. I’ve been brewing beer for about 10 years, so I’m pretty well acquainted with the cleaning process. This is my third year making wine, and I recently received some corking advice that cost me about 55 bottles of red and white Zinfandel. I had been boiling my corks and that seemed to be working well. I was advised to soak the corks for four to five hours, which caused them to squeeze out a good amount of water when I put them into the bottles.
The reason given to me for not boiling was that there is a coating on the corks, at least the good ones, and boiling removes this coating. The wine in question has become cloudy, with a film floating on the surface, and has a very undesirable taste. I do believe I’ll be dumping it, and we all know how much that hurts. I have since read in your magazine that one to two hours is enough soaking time and perhaps using potassium metabisulfite when soaking the corks can help eliminate this problem. Could you please address this issue?
In the home winemaking world there is quite a bit of debate on how to treat corks before they’re fed into the hand corker and forced down the neck of a bottle. What’s interesting is that, in the commercial wine world, there is no debate because no one boils, soaks or gets their corks wet in any way before feeding them through the corkers on commercial bottling machines.
Natural corks today have a coating that’s comprised of a mixture of silicone and paraffin wax. This coating helps protect the cork somewhat but most importantly, the paraffin provides the corks with a little tackiness (meaning stickiness, not the fake pink-flamingo kind) so that the cork doesn’t slip down into the neck of the bottle when it’s forced in by the corking machine.
I think the whole boiling and soaking thing is a holdover from the old days of winemaking. Back then corks were not very pliant and had to be softened by heat. In addition, water acted as a lubricant to help the corks get into the bottle. Also, corks were not very clean to begin with. So boiling was an attempt at sanitation. Though, technically, corks are never sterile, you can now buy nice, soft, clean corks in vacuum-packed bags from many sources. These newer corks are a breeze to use if you have a good hand-corker.
The results of your soaking routine are interesting. If you’re boiling your corks, you’re melting off the silicone and paraffin coating. You will therefore have a greater chance of corks not staying put once in the bottle (pushing out or sinking into the neck). This could possibly lead to more oxygen and microbes getting into your wine, a scary proposition.
Soaking for four to five hours in water similarly seems scary to me. At least while water is boiling, the water itself won’t get contaminated by any ambient bacteria or molds that might be floating around in the room or indigenous to the corks themselves. Soaking in plain water — not doctored up by anti-microbial potassium metabisulfite — for that long is just like asking the little buggies to come on in and go for a swim, not only in your soaking water but also your finished wine. I would try to bottle your wines without exposing your corks to water in the first place. If you find you need to soften them, or to use a little water for lubrication, make a strong (60 ppm free) sulfite solution and soak them for 15–20 minutes.
10. Why are oak barrels so popular in winemaking?
The answer is part tradition, part style, and part consumer expectation. Barrels have served as containers for all sorts of goods for more than a thousand years. Herodotus describes wine from Armenia being shipped to Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia. The early Roman Empire learned about cooperage technology from the European Celts, discovering that these durable and easily transported containers held oil, tar, grains, and other goods and didn’t break as frequently as the Roman clay amphorae.
As the Romans spread viticulture and winemaking throughout their burgeoning empire, the technology of barrel-making took firm hold. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, coopered containers held ale, cheese, water, meat, almost anything. Oak, with its tight pores, straight grain, and neutral flavor, lent itself well to barrel making and food storage. Oak vats, puncheons, and barrels, which when full of liquid swell up and create a tight seal, became the obvious choice for making, storing and transporting wine.
Oak cooperage and a tradition of winemaking (and wine consumption) traveled to South America, California, and South Africa with European settlers. In areas where the right kinds of oak trees didn’t grow, such as the west coast of California, early winemakers used whatever kind of wood best fit the bill — there are 10,000-gallon (37,000-L) redwood tanks from the 1800s still in use at the Wente Vineyards winery in Livermore. No matter how creative New World winemakers got, though, early North Americans still had a powerful thirst for imported French wines, and the gold standard for a wine’s style and taste remained with barrels from the European oak species, Quercus robur.
Today, even though American oak (Quercus alba) and oak from Hungary and other parts of Europe are becoming popular, we still have that legacy. Though stainless-steel tanks have pretty much made expensive, heavy and hard-to-clean oak cooperage all but obsolete from a wine storage point of view, we still are enamored with the flavor profile oak gives a wine. There is no doubt that, for certain wine types, the unmistakable stamp of being aged in a fine French oak barrel is a critical component of its style and personality.
The most exclusive and expensive wines in the world are still made with a large percentage of French oak barrels, though recent industry surveys have shown that this trend is flagging. While large wineries have always had to limit their barrel use due to cost or storage logistics, even medium-sized and small wineries are buying fewer barrels. More and more winemakers are discovering that American oak barrels and even noncoopered “oak alternatives” like oak beans, chips, and staves can add plenty of character to wines. As the quality of these products has improved over the years, many of us have had fun experimenting with them.
Small-scale wine producers will probably always be fans of the traditional barrel; I know I am. It’s great to be able to buy half a ton of grapes, ferment it in a half-ton picking bin and press it off into a conveniently-sized barrel with just enough wine left over for topping. There’s also no denying that one of my favorite smells in the winemaking process is the toasty, caramel-spicy aroma that wafts up from a freshly rinsed barrel being filled for the first time. Despite the cost (French oak barrels average $700 apiece), the current trend toward less oak, and the increasing quality of noncoopered oak, traditional barrels still form an important part of winemaking tradition and style.