Wednesday, November 10, 2004

White fermentations: to barrel or not?

Harvest is over.
Let's assume that all the viticultural techniques we'd applied to the vineyards were successful. Our fruit has been harvested & is on it's way to our winery right now.
What do we do next?
First we have to make a few assumptions about what type of wine we're going to make...then we can get started.

Let’s discuss white wines this time; later we’ll start to explore reds.
For white wines, here are a few considerations:

  • We want to process the fruit as quickly as possible to prevent any contamination problems (this means NO 4-hour rides from the vineyard to the winery…especially in the late September heat!)
  • Fruit should be picked when at it’s coolest, when just light enough to see (dawn) or under a light fog early in the day (this helps maintain the fruit quality on it’s way to the winery)
  • Whole clusters are preferable to fruit that’s been ripped apart by too vigorous picking (excessively rough pickers, or mechanical harvesters)
  • Contact with the skins in white wines is to be avoided in general
  • A tank should be directly available to receive the pressed juice, and should have adequate cooling to control the fermentation

  • At this point we need to decide whether we want to barrel ferment the wine or ferment it in tanks to dryness (RS only, or RS & ML dryness) and then barrel age it (moderate expense & labor), or just ferment and age in stainless steel tank (least expense & labor). Some people DO still use wooden tanks, but they’re more of an anachronism for white wines, so we’ll skip them here (stainless steel being the industry standard).

    If you’ve chosen to barrel ferment your white wine (most expensive & labor intensive method) you’ll be rewarded with a wine that has more depth to the oak and more complexity when finished. But since you’ll be needing to maintain the wines inside the barrels monthly, you’ll need a winery that has enough floor space for you to store those barrels you’re not working on while simultaneously having space to work the rest.

    A lot of people are needed for this type of operation: forklift drivers, people to stir the barrels, and make any needed additions to them, people to top the barrels with wine, laboratory techs to run analysis, etc. An added consideration is the need to replace your barrels after 4 to 5 years with new ones (assume ~20% per year of your barrel inventory). At $400 for a domestic American oak barrel to $750 for an imported French oak barrel, this can be a daunting expense! Stainless steel tanks will last virtually forever, with negligible maintenance costs. (Your task’s not over once you’ve got the wine out of the barrel either…you’ll need to maintain the barrels in a sanitary manner – cleaning and using sulphur dioxide to kill any microbes lingering inside.)

    All of this work means additional cost for your production.

    Using stainless tanks for the fermentation means slightly less oak contact, and less labor during the fermentation process. The additional labor costs still occur during the barrel aging period, though! Benefits of this method are (other than slightly reduced labor costs) clearer fruit expression without so much oak getting in the way, and yet still some of the characteristics of a sur lies aging (extended contact with the yeast lees). Costs for replacing barrels will still occur, and will add to your final production expenses.

    Full fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks will eliminate any cost for barrels (maintenance, replacement, storage, forklifts, etc), and will have the clearest expression of the fruit’s true nature. It will be the least complex wine, and the least expensive to produce labor-wise. The positive effects of lees contact will be minimized as well.

    Additional oak character can be added to the two stainless tank fermentation methods by using oak staves, oak chips, or oak powder in the tanks. Some have even gone as far as oak extract additions, though personally I just don’t find that flavor profile too attractive.

    The use of staves, chips and powders is in imitation of the traditional barrel aging. And while these methods do add oak character to the wines, they don’t mimic the slight (dare I say ‘micro-‘) oxidation of wines stored in oak barrels (micro-oxidation will be discussed under it’s own header in the future).

    One of the drawbacks is the contact of the wine with the oak: with chips & staves suspended inside a tank, the wine surrounds the oak – while in a barrel the wine is in contact with only one side of the stave. This differential between the interior (wet, low oxygen levels) and exterior (dry, high oxygen level) seems to be rather important in some recent literature as far a transferring compounds from the toasted staves into the wine.

    Another drawback to the use of chips or staves is the apparent inability to toast them evenly. This leads to variable oak character in the wines, and makes replication from wine to wine more difficult.

    The final decisions for white barrel fermentation rest with the winemaker:

    • What price point am I trying to make a wine for?
    • How much labor do I want to have/can I afford?
    • How much storage/work space do I have available?
    • What flavor profile am I looking for?
    • How important is the perception of “traditionalism” to my brand and consumers?

    The ultimate decision of which is the most accepted in the marketplace is up to – of course – the consumer, and will be decided by an enjoyment/cost ratio.

    As you can see, there's quite a bit to think about...


    Post a Comment

    << Home