Friday, March 22, 2013

Wining by Proxy...JD's account of the Barrel Seminar at Garagiste Southern Exposure...

As the Goddess of Wine was pouring Shai Cellars wines at the Garagiste Southern Exposure event in February, First Acolyte JD attended what was to be a seminar on the science of barrels in winemaking. It turned out to be a bit different from planned...

We started off with an easy and fortunately uneventful drive to Solvang on a beautiful, dry, bright Saturday morning. Let’s spend it inside learning about barrels, their effect on wine and taste some wine!

Ryan Render of the cooperage company Tonnelerie Saint Martin was sick, so unable to make it.

The original wine samples from McPrice-Myers were put into a reverse-layout side-by-side refrigerator/freezer the previous night. This situation was not discovered until the morning of the seminar. Alas, the wine was frozen. A quick scramble was done at Larner Vineyards and Michael Larner brought in a nice cross section of his in-process wine for the seminar.

A very informative and geeky multi-page handout was at each attendee setting at the seminar. It covered such things as: history, barrel anatomy, sizes (yes, size does matter in wine barrels) and styles, reasons for using oak, wood pictures, flavor compounds, processes, toasts and oak source areas.

After introductions of the two speakers by Doug Minnick, one of the Garagiste festival co-founders, and telling the story of the wine loss and replacement, the seminar was moderated by Stewart McLennan, the other festival co-founder. The two speakers talked about more than “just” barrels, because it’s about wine and they could, quite enjoyably.

Blair Fox - Viticulture and Enology major at University of California Davis. Raised in Santa Barbara, he has created fifteen vintages and is also the winemaker for Fess Parker.

Michael Larner was also a graduate of UCD. His father, Stevan, who started the Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon was a cinematographer. Michael has a Bachelor’s degree in Geology and a Masters in Viticulture and Enology. He teaches at a local college and is the Coquelicot winemaker.

The wine samples were of Larner Syrah, all the same 174 clone.

Blair: Santa Ynez terroir adds the pepper notes as compared to what one gets from Paso Robles grapes. The Santa Rita area is cooler, giving the pepper. He mainly uses commercial yeasts, a number of foreign ones including certain Australian.

Michael: The Santa Ynez Valley has more diurnal shifts, one of the factors that adds more pepper. He feels that picking at 23 brix gives a more French feel with more pepper while picking a little higher at 25 brix gives a more plummy feel. A separate Ballard Canyon AVA is coming. Ballard Canyon gives minerals and black olive among its attributes. Michael tends to do combination yeasts. After about a 2-degree shift with native yeasts to start, he then goes to commercial yeast, usually a Brunello type. He’s a bit of a cap maintenance 'nut' and he feels you can slap Syrah around, but have to coddle Pinot Noir. Too much stem gives greenness. He does a bunch of whole cluster fermentation and blending. Taste the stems to check conditions. He does a lot of combinations. French oak extracts quicker than American.

Both: Wine is made in the vineyard. Blair says, 'We try not to screw it up in the winery.'

Wine samples - Larner Syrah clone 174.
1. French neutral oak, which went through about 3-5 uses. This was a base line for the wine tasting.
2. Russian new oak. Tight grain, medium toast. Adds tannins over a long period.
3. French new oak. Hermitage from Vosges. Tight.
4. French new oak as in number 3. But this was a blend with 25% whole clusters.

The Russian army harvests their oak or at least used to.

Blair – buys custom barrels, both in source and toast.

Tasting 1 (As always, these my own feelings, others may find different results.)
1. Nose - a little heat. A little tart. Sharpest of the lot.
2. Nose - not as hot. Some herbal notes. A bit fruitier with a more tannic end?
3. Fuller, smoother. Some floral? Mouth - more baking spice
4. Nose - more pepper?

1. More bitter mid-palate.
2. Sharper than #3. Touch of bitterness.
3. Touch of tobacco. Smoother than the Russian.
4. More baking spices. More notes, more things going on.

Blair ozonates his barrels to clean them. He said one gets about 4 yrs of effects from a barrel. At Fess Parker the barrels go 8-10 years, but go through reductions of effects.

Michael: Keep your barrels filled. That way it gets/stays solid and keeps out stuff. The number of fills reduces extractability. If you let them sit empty, SO2 them, seal with plastic. He uses two different coopers. All are medium toast. If Brett gets in, the barrel is ruined.[Brettanomyces is a genus of yeast, colloquially referred to as "Brett". It can taint everything it touches.]

In a non-barrel side note, [French] Cote-Rotie Viognier goes into Syrah, co-fermented, co-planted. Sounds like a field blend, but Syrah and Viognier ripen at different times. C-R has 'more extreme conditions' so their Viognier ripens sooner and comes out closer to Syrah, unlike here. This ripening timing makes for different approaches here.

Michael thinks beating up Syrah gets it oxygenated and keeps sulfide (?) away.

While the seminar was informative and interesting, not having the actual cooperage person probably changed the focus of the seminar. Reading the handout showed so many details that go into barrels and how they can affect the wine. This is a huge sub-field in itself and gets very technical the further in one looks. I find that no matter what aspect of the process I look at, there is always so much more involved and so many possible decision points, each leading to yet another possibility in the wine.

Seminar attendees got served a quite tasty box lunch provided by Cecco Ristorante who also supplied food for the Grand Tasting. Then with a bit of lunch, off to the tasting!

Shawn 'Shai' Halahmy and the GoW

Thanks to JD! And thanks to the Garagiste team, who delivered a terrific tasting experience! Cheers to all! 

Photo by Xochitl Maiman/I'll Drink To That

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