Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Slightly Less Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys

Much of the past 2 weeks has been spent barreling. We've been digging out tanks, pouring out bins, pressing the skins, and putting lots of delicious wine into oak barrels.

The process consists of cleaning out used barrels, prepping new barrels, and then filling them with wine from the press. Since we store old barrels wet, we need to clean them out with the barrel washing tool (see post from October 19 - "Cleaning Barrels and Tanks") and then rinse them with ozonated water:

A 228 liter (60 US gallon) barrel weighs about 550 lbs (1 liter = 1 kg, or 2.2 lbs, plus the weight of the barrel). That makes it very difficult to move a full barrel, so to ensure that each barrel's interior is completely ozonated, we fill them one quarter of the way and roll them on their racks:

For new barrels, we rip off the plastic covering and remove the temporary bung. A brand new French barrel will cost you about $1200 - $1400, so most wineries do not age their wines in 100% new barrels.  Besides, it would give the wine too much oak. So unless you work at Chateau Figeac (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_Figeac) you use a mix of new and old barrels.

Then it's time to fill 'em. We pump the wine from the press (see post from October 18 - "Stop the Presses") into the barrels using a handy barrel filling tool:

The barrel filling tool is simply a stainless steel pipe with a right-angle
bend and a little glass window (to see if wine in flowing)
The small glass window at the center of this picture allows you to see if
wine is flowing into the barrel.  Since it's dark in the barrel, it's really
hard to see if it's filling properly

Wine barrels are typically toasted on the inside. That means that the barrel makers purposely char the wood to give the wine a smoky, "oakey" flavor. It smells amazing! Unfortunately, that also makes the inside of the barrel very black. And since wine is dark red, it's quite difficult to see what's going on when filling barrels. Here you can see our assistant winemaker use a flashlight to gauge the level of wine in the barrel:

Once the barrel is full of wine, we put a special bung in the barrel's bung hole. It's a rubber bung with a hole through it, and the hole is plugged with a plastic fermentation lock. A ferm lock is a small version of the pipes under your kitchen sink, and it keeps air from flowing into the barrel while also allowing gas to escape as the wine continues to ferment. You can see it in action below:

Here's a little more info on barrels: We use at least 4 different sizes of barrels, and almost 100% are French oak. The standard size is 228 liters, or 60 gallons. That will fill 25 cases of bottles (25 cases X 12 bottles X 0.75 liters/bottle = 225 liters).

We also use 114 and 500 liter barrels. When full, they weigh 290 lbs and approximately 1200 lbs, respectively. Our largest barrel holds 2500 liters. No, that's not a typo. The larger the barrel, the less oak flavor will be imparted to the wine.

Barrels also come from different forests, so different manufacturers are used for different characteristics. It's quite common for our winemaker to choose different barrels for the same wine. He'll blend them before bottling to obtain desired characteristics.

A regular 228 liter barrel from Seguin Moreau with Medium Light Toast
(MLT designation on the face of the barrel)

Now that you know how much wine fits into a small barrel, and how much it weighs, you'll get a good laugh at this silly commercial for Jameson's Irish Whiskey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOydQFJdx1k

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