I thought I was late getting in a barrel order this year, but when I checked my records it was the exact same time last year that we put in an order. Barrels are a huge expense for us. We only use French Oak and I select very high end barrels. The cost, depending on the exchange rate of the Euro, is usually about $1100 a barrel.
Our primary barrel supplier is a French company called Sequin Moreau. We also use Claude Gillet for our Chardonnay and Ermitage for Syrah, but most of our new barrels are Sequin Moreau and are used on our Cabernets. Barrels come in two basic formats: 225 liter ‘Bordeaux’ or 228 liter ‘Burgundy, which are slightly fatter and shorter. For Cabernets I use the Bordeaux barrels. Next you have to decide on thickness. They either come in 21mm called ‘Chateau Ferre’ or 27mm called ‘Export’. I always select Chateau Ferre. I’ve just heard that it is superior and it comes in a wider selection of barrel types.
The next choice is barrel grade. Sequin Moreau offers 5 different grades of barrel. The basic is called ‘Selection Terrior’. That’s really just a brand name. The grades represent an increase in the age of the wood and the tightness of the grain. The older and tighter the wood, the more desirable as the impact of the wood becomes more subtle. In the past I’ve tried a selection of the top 4 grades from Sequin Moreau. The one I’ve found I like best is their second highest grade called Selection Vendanges Tardives or SVT for short. The SVT seems to really bring out the aromatics of the wine and add nice spice and gentle tannin development. The barrel below ‘Selection Cabernet’ is nice, but just not as fine as the SVT. There is also a Selection FX which we tried but I thought it was too drying for our wines with too much sweetness.
So this time I ordered all SVT barrels. They seem to be best for our wine. The next big choice is ‘Toast Level’. This is the amount of fire toasting that the barrels get and probably has the largest impact on the finished wine. There are five levels of toast and the option to toast the heads of the barrels. The toasts are Light, Medium, Medium Long, Medium Plus, and Heavy. You can then select with each option to have the heads of the barrel toasted too.
This is probably the thing we’ve learned the most about in six vintages. Certain vineyards and certain wines respond better to certain levels of toasting. At a basic level the lighter the toast the more vanilla and simple flavors you get and the more tannin and structure is added to the wine. The heavier the toast the more complex spicy, smokey flavors and the less tannin extract you get. For most of our wines, we have more than enough tannin in the grapes and don’t need to add any with the barrel treatment. For those vineyards we use heavier toasts and even toast the heads.
At first I was reluctant to use Heavy toast or Toasted Heads. I’ve learned though that in a very tannic site like Chaine d’Or the wine benefits from the complex flavors and it’s best to avoid adding any tannin. For Chaine d’Or we’ll use a combo of Medium Plus and Heavy toast barrels with Toasted Heads. For a wine like our Haut Tubee that has lots of Zinfandel and warm site Syrah we’ll use a lighter toast to add some structure to the wine.
We ordered a bunch of different toast levels and combos. That will give us some flexibility at harvest time.