December 17, 2019
It’s time for the barreling.
After the harvest, after the grapes have been pressed, after the fermentation, the wine is ready to be poured into barrels.
A month after the grapes’ journey from the vineyard to the tanks, it is time for the young wine to settle into its new home — French oak barrels. The wine will age in these wooden containers for 12 to 16 months. During that time, it will grow in depth and character.
If the vineyard is where the wine is born, it is the barrel where it matures. It is a crucial process that can render wine of superb quality — or vinegar.
Barreling is a two-day process.
The first day, the previous vintage is emptied out of the barrels, moved to tanks, and prepared for their next step: bottling.
Then the barrels are cleaned using a spinning water sprinkler, which rotates the barrels while they are cleaned. After that, winemaker David Lucas inspects each barrel, looking for any imperfections. A few barrels are taken out of circulation, to be sold to other wine producers or to people wanting to make furniture or use them as planters.
About 25% to 30% of the Lucases’ barrels are crafted of new French oak each year. The rest of the barrels are between a year and 6 years old.
The pairing of barrel and wine is an art in itself.
Winemaker Heather Pyle Lucas said she usually asks David to determine which barrels go where. The second-year barrels contribute a fair amount of oak to the wine, and that is taken into account.
With brand-new barrels, Lucas takes into consideration the cooperage that made them, and the forest where they came from.
“Different forests, different regions, different barrel techniques have different influences on the influence of the barrel and the wine that comes out,” Lucas explained.
What the Lucases observe in the personality of the young wine during fermentation helps dictate which barrel makers or coopers they use now.
Lucas used to consult for other winemakers on their choice of barrels. One of the trick questions he used to ask when consulting was, “How come you have those barrels?”
“And I never got the answer I was looking for: it was always like, ‘Well, my Uncle Jim had three or four barrels and I used his’ or ‘The wine barrel salesman took my wife and I out to dinner at Wine and Roses, so we bought the barrels from them,’” he said. “I never heard, ‘Well, I tried three or four barrel makers, and these were the best for my vineyard.’”
The choice of barrel is where winemakers frame the personality of their vineyard, Lucas said, and in Lucas Winery’s own wines, they don’t want the oak to dominate the vineyard.
“We want the oak to work in harmony with the personality of the ZinStar vineyard because, again, she is so delicate and almost feminine in her personality, so its really easy to overwhelm them with too much oak,” Lucas said.
Pyle Lucas thinks the barrels themselves are a piece of art.
“The barrel is as interesting as the wine. The barrel is obviously something that is manufactured, but it has no screws, nothing really holding it together, except the shape has been refined over many many hundreds of years,” she said. “And right after it is produced, it will hold liquid, and I just find that remarkable.”
After the barrels have been filled, Pyle Lucas will keep them under careful observation.
Air is the enemy of wine, Lucas explained, and the wine will lose some volume through evaporation.
Every three weeks, Pyle Lucas tops off the barrels to ensure they are completely full, leaving no room for vinegar bacteria to grow.
The single-high Grand Chai — the winery’s barrel room — makes it easy for Pyle Lucas to fill up that eighth to quarter of a cup that had been lost.
“Vinegar is really easy to make in the presence of oxygen, but vinegar bacteria needs oxygen, so it’s really not that difficult for winemakers to exclude oxygen,” she said.
When Lucas consulted for other winemakers, that was the one thing he always tried to etch into their memories: “You can lose something in a vintage if you do not keep the barrels absolutely full; you can lose something in a vintage you didn’t even know was there. And maybe it wasn’t going to show up until a year or so of bottle aging. So keeping the containers absolutely full is really, really important.”