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Barrels of Hot News

Barrel makers are among the first to know about the latest trends within winemaking. Producers' current requests are for barrels that will allow for more fruit rather than big, oaky wines. JOHN STIMPFIG reports.

Hindsight may be a wonderful thing, yet foresight would be infinitely more valuable when it comes to spotting and predicting future wine trends. Fortunately, there is a way to second guess the market. It is a matter of talking to the right people: the informed, on-the-ground group of observers of the global wine scene – French barrel makers. These Gallic coopers supply the world’s greatest winemakers with a raft of oak vats and barrels, which gives them some early, unique and interesting insights into the future styles of wines at the finer end of the market.

So what are the new trends emerging? According to Henri de Pracomtal, chairman of the premium producer, Tonnellerie Taransaud: ‘The main trend is that winemakers in both the New and Old Worlds continue to require less overt and obvious oak in their wines. Above all, they want barrels that enable their wines to express more fruit and terroir.’

This ‘more fruit, less oak’ view was espoused and echoed by everyone I talked to. But how are cooperages achieving this? One methodology was to cut down on the degree of toasting, while using less but more penetrating heat. ‘Before, many customers liked really heavy toasting on their French barrels,’ says Christine Nadalié of the eponymous family cooperage. ‘Now though, a lot are coming back to medium or light toast, which not only provides more fruit expression but also more complex aromas in the wine.’


Another way to reduce intrusive oak flavours in wine is to increase the size of the barrel so the wine-to-wood ratio is proportionately greater than, say, the traditional 225l Bordeaux barrel. Demptos, for instance, offers a range of mid-sized barrels varying in size from 300 to 600l to meet this demand. ‘We ran a lot of tests with clients and they like what they taste,’ says Jean Bourjade of Séguin Moreau. ‘In places like the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc Roussillon , a lot of people are switching away from conventional sized barrels and moving to these larger barrel sizes.’

Price isn’t an issue with these bigger barrels. Not least, because they can cost proportionately as much as a top-quality 225l French oak barrique, (now around h575). Nonetheless, cost is becoming a sticking point for buyers after five years of high demand and rising prices. ‘There’s no question that 11 September and fears over global recession have cut some wine producers’ capital expenditure,’ says Jean-Marc Didier of Tonnellerie Quintessence. As a result, many coopers are expecting sales of expensive French oak barrels to plateau. But the older, established premium players are an innovative bunch. Many have already diversified their product range into American and central European oak, both of which are cheaper than French oak.

Take Tonnellerie Nadalié which is producing a composite 225l barrel made with oak from five different eastern European countries – Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Russia. ‘We launched it two years ago and it is generating some very exciting results,’ says Christine Nadalié. ‘It produces a fresher, fruitier wine with softer tannins. And while it isn’t as complex as French oak, it’s also less expensive.’


Similarly, Séguin Moreau’s ongoing research has also resulted in two new products. One is a new barrel from the Adyge region in Russia, which a number of classed growths in Bordeaux have included in their barrel programmes. The second is its new Reference Barrel, made up of a blend of oak from several European countries, including France, which costs around t500. ‘This is even more neutral than the Adyge barrel, so offers the benefits of gentle oxygenation without the oaky flavours,’ says Bourjade. In the US, Demptos’ Napa Valley Cooperage has come up with its own ‘blend barrel’, which is custom built with 50% American and 50% French oak.


Meanwhile, cheaper American oak (around t350 for a 225l barrel) is also extending its influence into some new ‘Old World’ bastions. For instance, Bordeaux is buying significantly more US oak, particularly for négociant wines, while a number of châteaux are also using it in their second and third labels.

In the last few years, there has been a small but growing trend towards the use of oak for fermentation as well. On the one hand, the ‘garagistes’ are using new, small barriques to give their reds the full ‘200%’ oak treatment. On the other there has been a less publicised but perhaps more significant trend back to traditional large oak fermenting vats.

‘After 20 years of stainless steel, people had forgotten about the benefits of wood for fermentation,’ says Henri de Pracomtal, chairman of Tonnellerie Taransaud. ‘Although these vats are more expensive and harder to maintain, they offer more finesse and complexity. And they keep fermentation at a more uniform temperature.’

Winemakers’ attitudes to oak have moved on hugely. Twenty years ago, a winemaker would ask for a barrel that didn’t leak. Now, a good winemaker knows what type, quantity and style of oak works best with every varietal.

Much of that knowledge transfer has come from the cooperages’ own pioneering research. Bourjade believes there is still plenty of research to do. ‘I think the next 20 years will be more exciting than the last. But for quality wines, oak will still be number one.’

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