We've talked about the contributions of the grapes, the yeast, and the bacteria to wine flavor and aroma, but there's one particular storage vessel that is particularly associated with wine that adds its own contributions to the flavor and aroma profile: the oak barrel.
There are three major species of oak that are most commonly used for wine barrels-- Quercus robur, Quercus sessilis, and Quercus alba. The first two are European, and the last is American. Aside from looking different, they all provide something slightly different to wine. For example, barrels from the Central forest of France are typically made from Quercus sessilis and are more likely to contribute high aromatics to wines versus barrels made from the Limousin forest just south of it, where Quercus robur dominates and the wood has more tendency to contribute polyphenols (structural components) to the wine. Wine aged in American Quercus alba is likely to pick up even less phenolics from the oak than either of the French varieties, so winemakers looking for a softer oak profile would do well to look to American oak.
Barrel flavor goes beyond origin and species, however. Once the trees are felled, and staves cut, they need to be dried. This can take place either in a kiln, or out of doors-- usually 24 to 48 months. During this time, the moisture content in the wood drops to about 12%, the cellulose in the wood starts to break down into compounds that influence the character of the wine, and the tannins in the wood start to bind together, which has the effect of making them feel softer on the palate.
After drying, the staves will be shaped, and assembled into a barrel. After shaping, the staves will be raised, or stood in an upright circle held in place with a few hoops. At this point they need to be made somewhat malleable to get them into the characteristic barrel shape. This can be done by steaming or firing. If they're fired, they'll be sprayed with water during the firing in order to help with the bending.
Once the barrel is shaped, it is then toasted. Variations in the level of toasting will impact the flavors imparted to the wine with lighter toasts contributing more natural wood aroma and flavor, medium toasts contributing more vanilla and caramel, and darker toasts skewing more towards spicy and smoky tones.
Here at Aridus, we use a variety of oaks and toasts. For example, we really enjoy the flavors that Hungarian and Russian oak impart to our Chardonnay-- a sort of unique vanilla, coconut and hazelnut combination. We use a fairly high percentage of American oak on our Tempranillo to impart some of that traditional dill note that you get in many classic Riojas. And we tend to use light toasts for wines like our Grenache, and heavier toasts on the Cabernet Sauvignon. Ultimately, we utilize a variety of barrels from different forests and with different toast levels so we can craft the perfect final blend. We have over 20 types of barrels on site, which gives us a lot fo flexibility when it comes to matching wine to barrel.
You may have guessed this, but alcohol is one of the most highly regulated industries in the United States. If you're a youthful-looking consumer, you'll be well aware of this when the clerk at your neighborhood supermarket or liquor store, or the bartender at your favorite watering hole inspects your ID to make sure you're of age. If you receive wine club shipments from us, you'll be aware of the indication on the box that the recipient of the wines must provide proof of 21+ years of age. These laws and regulations are set and enforced primarily at the state level, with penalties and specific requiremetns varying from state to state.
As a producer of wine, we're regulated on our end as well, both on a federal and state level. The federal agency tasked with overseeing us is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB for short. As the name suggests, the group regulates producers of alcohol and tobacco products, but also firearms and the fuel alcohol we're all familiar with from putting in our cars. They aren't tasked with regulating sales, but with regulating production, importation, distribution, and labelling, according to the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, which went into effect in 1935 and was ammended in 1988. Ultimately, the TTB reports up to the Department of the Treasury.
Because alcohol is an intoxicant, the reporting on it is pretty comprehensive. We file reports with the TTB quarterly to let them know how much bulk wine we have on site, how much bottled inventory in case goods storage, and during harvest, how much volume is fermenting. We keep track down to the bottle and the gallon. If we lose 20 gallons while we're filtering-- we report it. If we remove a case from storage to bring to the tasting room, we report it. We pay taxes for the privilege of working in this industry, so we make sure that each drop is accounted for.
The TTB also approves every label that we put on a bottle to ensure that what we're putting out to you, our customers, is accurate and that we've included all the required information regarding alcohol content, safety warnings, and volume in bottle. This is true for every label you see on the wine shelf-- somebody in the TTB has taken a close look at it and given it the okay. Given the number of labels that must come across their desks every day, they do a pretty remarkable job of getting the yea or nay back in a timely manner. They also do a good job of laying out comprehensive information on how to comply with their regulations on their website. They even have a section for consumers, which is pretty interesting if you want more information about the functions of the TTB. You can even sign up for their newsletter if you find yourself fascinated with this governmental bureau.
At the end of the day, most of these regulations are for consumer protection. And even though the number of regulations can seem daunting, doing the homework and asking the questions to make sure that we're in compliance not only helps us be more informed producers, it helps us understand some of the history of our industry here in the US.
The tools around the winery are one of my favorite parts of the job. There's seemingly a specialized tool for every task. Here are a few of my favorites, and their uses!
Wine thieves - glass and stainless steel
These are used for sampling barrels-- you pull the bung out of the barrel, dip the sanitized wine theif in, put your thumb over the hole at the top, and voila! You can pull out a sample. I always use a stainless steel one, because *fun fact* I've broken every single glass wine thief I've ever used. I'm just that clumsy.
They're not nerf balls-- they're specialized sponges that we use for cleaning hoses. You string all your hoses together, hook them up to a pump and a tub of cleaning liquid, then let the pump push a sponge ball through the whole setup. Anything that might have built up inside the hose gets scrubbed out.
We use these to securely hold fittings on tanks-- valves, hoses, etc. What I really like about this little thing, though, is that if you practice a little bit, you can flick one into place with one hand and look super cool. If you're here at the winery some time, ask me and I'll teach you how.
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