Michael Eddy on Barrels
Many winemakers will tell you that the most critical component in crafting wine comes from the grapevine’s terroir and the work done in the vineyard. However, after the fruit comes into the winery, several crucial decisions are made to preserve and enhance the wine’s quality. This is where experience and artistic expression come into play.
One of the critical choices we make is deciding which barrels to use for each wine lot. Barrels add complexity and are considered the spice drawer of a winemaker’s toolbox. The barrel decisions for each wine lot are vast. The kind of wood (at Martini, we use oak), the region where it’s grown, the length of time the wood is allowed to dry, cooperage, toast level, whether to use new or used barrels — all have a significant impact on the wine.
When wine ages in oak, the wood slowly imparts flavor, color, texture and tannins. A new barrel provides more of these attributes versus one that has been used for a year or two. While building the barrel, the cooper exposes the interior of the barrel to fire to “toast” the inside. This charring caramelizes the wood to bring out its natural sugars and will ultimately impart a toasty, charry, caramel, or spicy character to the wine.
Here at Louis M. Martini Winery, we use French and American oak exclusively. French oak barrels have a tighter grain which leaves less room for the wine to interact with the wood. We’ll choose French oak to assert a lighter touch that enhances but doesn’t overwhelm the wine. French oak lends more nuanced characteristics and aromas, like creamy vanilla, toasted bread and baking spices. The wider grain in American oak provides a larger wine to wood contact ratio, and we choose American oak where we want a bolder, more assertive influence on the wine. American oak lends characteristics and aromas like coconut, vanilla extract, caramel and baking spice. In addition to adding sensory complexity, barrel aging permits a small amount of oxygen to slowly penetrate the wine and provides an environment that allows the wine to undergo its secondary malolactic fermentation.
Our Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon uses both French and American oak barrels for 18 months of aging. Different vineyard lots are fermented and kept separate, each treated individually depending on their characteristics. We closely monitor each barrel during the aging cycle, tasting from it at regular intervals. Then during the blending process, these individual lots are evaluated, and the final blend is assembled. Sometimes the wine can include a combination of hundreds of individual lots! It truly is an art form.
In the case of our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine requires a more subtle approach. The grapes from this subregion tend to come to the winery with intensely deep Cabernet fruit characteristics, a product of its distinctive terroir and long hangtime. To preserve those natural qualities, we prefer to use French oak barrels exclusively for an average of 28 months. The resulting wine is complex and rich with layers of fruit, spice, and enough tannic structure to allow it to age for years to come.