Like a secret blend of seasonings in your signature dish, the barrel in which wine is aged lends distinct characteristics. Some savvy producers use this influence as an advantage, and work with cooperages to specify the density of wood grain or adjust toast levels. Others go a step beyond, however, and create custom barrels.
Weingut Maximin Grünhaus in Germany’s Mosel Valley is one of the few producers in existence to craft barrels from its estate’s forests, but others without such resources have established cooperages. Philippe Guigal, director/winemaker of Rhône winery E. Guigal, believes his firm’s barrel-making facility gives an advantage.
“[It] gives us the opportunity to select and focus on forests that might be lesser known, but reach an equivalent or higher level of quality,” he says.
Cockburn’s Port is the last local Port company in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal with its own operating cooperage. There, older wood is given priority, and faulty staves are supplanted with ones from a mixed-origin stock that may exceed 100 years of age. Because old wood is neutral in terms of flavor, “replacing with what fits is more important than the wood’s origin,” says Rupert Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates, which owns the lodge.
Some producers take a more high-tech approach. California’s Jackson Family Wines, for instance, uses optical sorters to classify oak staves and ensure only very fine-grain wood is selected for its barrel program. These couture vessels are used at many of its estates, like Arcanum in Tuscany, Château Lassègue in Bordeaux and Vérité Winery in Sonoma County.
The qualities imparted by Tokaj oak led Obsidian Wine Co., also in California, to purchase Budapest cooperage Kádár Hungary in the 1990s. “[The oak] is more aromatic than tannic and really emphasizes fruit on the nose and length on the palate,” says Obsidian Co-owner Peter Molnar.
To ensure the provenance of the wood, Obsidian partners with another cooperage, Taransaud; they employ the French National Institute for Agricultural Research to verify oak sources by species and region through DNA testing.