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The Impact of Barrel Selection on Our Wines

Many winemakers will tell you that the most critical component in crafting wine is the grapevine’s suitability to its terroir and the work done in the vineyard. However, after the fruit arrives at the winery, several crucial decisions are made to preserve and enhance the wine’s quality. This is where winemaking experience and artistic expression come into play.

One of the important choices we make is deciding which barrels to use for each wine lot. Barrels add complexity and are considered a spice drawer in the winemaker’s toolbox. The barrel decisions for each wine lot are vast. The kind of wood (at Martini, we use oak), the country and region where it’s grown, the length of time the wood is allowed to season, cooperage (where barrels are made), toast level, whether to use new or used barrels — all these attributes have a significant impact on the wine.

When wine ages in oak, the wood slowly imparts aromas, flavor, texture, and tannins. A new barrel provides more of these characteristics than one that has been used for a year or two. While building the barrel, the cooper exposes the interior 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 employ French and American oak exclusively, predominately using a medium plus toast level. French oak has a tighter grain, leaving less room in the barrel for the wine to interact with the wood, so it takes longer to extract aroma and flavor. We choose to age in French oak when we want to convey a lighter touch that enhances but doesn’t overwhelm, the wine. French oak lends more nuanced characteristics and aromas, like creamy vanilla, incense, toasted bread, and a myriad of baking spices. The wider grain in American oak provides a larger wine-to-wood contact ratio, and we choose American oak when we want a bolder, more assertive influence on the wine. American oak lends characteristics and aromas like coconut, caramel, and barbeque spice. In addition to adding sensory complexity, barrel aging permits a small amount of oxygen to slowly penetrate the wine, which helps with its evolution as it ages. It also provides an environment that allows the wine to undergo secondary malolactic fermentation.

For our Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, we use French and American oak barrels during its 18-month aging. Different vineyard lots are fermented and kept separate; each is treated individually depending on its unique characteristics and quality potential.

Our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon requires a more subtle approach. The grapes from this subregion tend to come to the winery with intensely deep Cabernet fruit characteristics and rustic tannins, a product of its distinctive terroir and long hang time. To preserve those natural qualities, we prefer to use French oak barrels exclusively while aging the wine for about 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.

Cypress Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon hits the sweet spot between the two. For this wine, we typically age in a combination of French and American oak for about 20 months before blending and bottling. It’s about a 75/25 split between French and American oak. This highly structured, single-vineyard wine is enveloped with generous oak notes and baking spices.

Cypress Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon has been a testing ground for us with more seasoned American oak barrels. Given all the qualities we mentioned above, we have been selecting 4- and 5-year air-dried American barrels from specific coopers that can impart the appealing texture and structure we like from American oak but with more mellow spice and less overt aromatics. This allows the wine’s luscious fruit to shine through. We love the results so much that we keep incorporating more new American oak in each vintage!

For all of our wines, we closely monitor every 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 over one hundred individual lots! It truly is an art form.

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