Spring 2024 Newsletter

Wine and Oak: A Union From Soil to Bottle

Besides perfectly ripe, high-quality grapes, there are few inputs that have as much impact on the flavor and quality of a finished wine as a barrel. Barrels impart subtle flavors and aromas, round out the wines with smooth textures, protect the wine from oxidation and provide a small oxygen exchange that allows the wine to breathe while aging. 

Wood and oak have long been used in wine production. Our barrels are all from France, where oak trees have been cultivated to store and transport goods and to build dwellings for centuries.  The government manages forests in France, regulating logging and sale and growth. After trees reach the right age or size to harvest, new trees propagate naturally ensuring the forest’s health and sustainability.

In France, the Merrandier buys trees and processes the wood into staves that barrel companies, or cooperages, buy. Staves are for sale through a silent auction process. Barrel experts from each cooperage inspect the staves and submit their best bids in a blind, sealed envelope. The highest bid wins the lot, keeping prices high as large suppliers work to protect quality and supply.

Different forests lend different flavor components to the wine depending on location, microclimate and soil, like a vineyard location influences wine flavor. Wood grains vary from fine to compact to porous, which affects the amount and rate of extraction of the barrel’s tannins and aromatics. Both cooperages and wineries find their preferences and purchase to certain standards. 

Back at the cooperage, the wood staves are stored outside and exposed to the elements for two to three years to “season” and remove bitterness. Similar to how we produce single vineyard or blended wines, some coopers assemble barrels only from single forests to ensure uniformity, then brand and sell barrels designated from that forest. Others combine tight grain staves from many forests into single barrels, much like a multi-vineyard blend. At ROAR, we prefer tight-grained barrels from a variety of forests including Allier, Bertranges and Troncais.

Next, "master toasters" heat the wood staves to make them pliable. Using remnant wood for the fire, they bend the staves over an open flame and add hoops to force it into shape. Then they toast the open barrel over a low, slow fire to crystalize the sugars in the wood and release natural aromas like baked bread or vanilla. Each barrel is flipped from end to end around the fire every five minutes so each stave is evenly exposed and toasted to perfection. For Pinot Noir, we prefer medium-toast-level barrels to complement but not obscure the wine’s elegant qualities.

Finished barrels leave the Port of Marseille for the Port of Oakland, spending about six weeks on the water. Once they arrive at the winery, they are ready to go. We determine which wines will go in which barrels before we even pick the grapes. After harvest, those plans evolve as we evaluate ripeness, tannin structure and adjust our barrel plan. When primary fermentation is complete, we move the wine from the tank into the barrel where it ages for 10 months or more.

We’ve learned a tremendous amount about barrels and cooperages in 23 years. We taste with our barrel consultants and refine our approach each year. Depending on the grape varietal, we use a varying percentage of new and once-used barrels for aging. Occasionally, we experiment with a different barrel style, but because they are a heavy investment, we mostly use tried and tested barrels that we know will deliver the ROAR house style. 

The handmade nature of each barrel results in variation, so it’s an ongoing and fascinating process of trial and error. Barrels come with their own unique history, character and origin story, just like our vineyards and wines.