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Barrels Are Expensive—Why Do We Use Them?

Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer explains the benefits of aging all Brancaia's wines in small French oak barrels.

Posted: Nov 13, 2008 9:56am ET

By Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer

Posted by Barbara Kronenberg-Widmer

The alcoholic fermentations are done, both at Brancaia in Chianti Classico and in the Maremma, so our principal task and decision-making process during the next 12 to 20 months involves when, for how long and in what kind of oak we barrel all the different young wines. At Brancaia, all wines are matured in small oak barrels for at least 12 months. Apart from some tests we do every year, we exclusively use French oak barriques and use them for two to three years before we sell them off to other producers.

So every year we buy roughly 600 new barriques—one third of all our barrels. We purchase them from four different French producers. From each producer, we buy two to three different oak wood types and two different levels of toasting. Some barrels generate a faster wood-to-wine transfer and therefore need less time to get into balance with the wine. Others go through this process more slowly. With all barrel aging, we strive for elegant and fine roasted aromas that can blend into the wines well.

My six-year-old daughter Nina asks me, "Why do we need so many different barrels? That seems crazy." On one hand, because it's incredibly interesting to see the wines evolve in the different barrels, and the blending of the differently matured wines generates a lot of beautiful complexity in the final wine. On the other, there is a very practical reason too—it's a way to spread out the risk. "What kind of risk?" Nina asks. Unpleasant aromas or a leakage can destroy wine in a barrel in seconds.

Those seconds are in strong contrast to the time it needs to make a barrel. The oak wood for these barrels comes from trees in the forests of Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges that reached an age of 120 to 240 years before being cut down, and the wood is dried for two to five years before it then can be crafted into barrels. It is a science and an art to produce a perfect barrique. Top-quality barrels can only be produced in a limited quantity every year at enormous cost.

Nina's next question is obvious: So all this risk, all this cost, all the work and hassle and then after two to three years you struggle to find somebody to buy the used barrels…? Well, the answer is actually easy because we are so convinced that the barrel aging adds so much elegance, finesse and complexity to the wine. But Nina is not yet satisfied with this answer and I have to add three more rationales:

1. The barrels enhance the fruit and fermentation flavors with the toasted aromas.

2. The barrel aging increases the tannin structure, which assures a longer aging potential for the wine.

3. The slightly porous nature of the wood allows moderate oxygen intake, not enough to result in oxidation, but enough to react with some of the tannins and create more elegance in the wine.

At six, my daughter already has a well-developed understanding for figures, which is the reason she also asks why we sell off the barrels at such a low cost after two to three years instead of keeping them. The answer is simple. Of the above three rationales, the first two don't continue after three years. In addition, the risk of infections by microorganisms increases dramatically after prolonged use of the same barrels.

Now, Nina finally asks, "Why don't we only use stainless steel vats for the aging?" It's easier of course, but what about all the lost benefits?

So you understand now that my daughter never finishes one question without asking another. That's good. It's how she will find her way in the world and hopefully the world of wines.

Talk to you next week,

Thomas Gallagher
Napa, CA —  November 13, 2008 2:02pm ET
Smart daughter - great post

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