Fermenting in Barrel


Halter Ranch Vineyard

Arnaud guides Block 8 Syrah berries into new French oak.


Since the 2011 vintage a portion of Syrah and Grenache have been sorted and crushed directly into French Oak barrels, some new (which means freshly toasted and constructed from the cooper, as yet untouched by wine), some neutral (neutral means that the barrel has had wine in it over the course of at least one year–this is our definition, some winemakers distinguish between barrels that have been used just once and those that have been used 2 or more times).  These special Rhone lots go through both primary (yeast eating sugar to create alcohol) and secondary (acetobacter eat malic acid-the variety of acid that comes from fruit-to create lactic acid-the type of acid associated with dairy, red wine, and some white wines) fermentation in barrel.

The process is labor intensive in that each barrel must be partially deconstructed to remove the head (one of the end pieces) so that the must (skins, seeds, and pulp) and juice (pre-wine) may be deposited directly into it after sorting and crushing.  Additionally, punch downs (the process of physically pushing the solid must down beneath the surface of the liquid juice in order to introduce oxygen and keep the yeast happy) must be performed daily on each individual barrel.  Ultimately, each group of three barrels containing must and juice, results in one barrel of finished wine.  This year we deconstructed 100 total barrels with the intention of produciong 33 barrels of finished wine that will be used for our Block 22 Reserve Syrah and Cotes de Paso red programs.

The effect of fermenting entirely in barrel, as opposed to taking the wine through primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks before moving it to barrel for secondary fermentation and aging, is a very distinct texture and more pronounced spice in the finished wine.  The practice is fairly unusual given the time and skill it takes to work so intimately with the barrels.  For context, this winery, is one of the few others in California that performs barrel fermentation on a yearly basis.  Typically the new oak is reserved for the Syrah portion, given that Syrah seems to interact very positively with the more powerful flavor profile of new barrels.  Grenache we typically ferment in neutral oak given its tendency to uptake easily, and potentially be overwhelmed by, the pronounced flavor of new oak.

It would be accurate to consider oak barrels in the context of wine something of a marriage between a spice rack and a breathable membrane.  The slow rate of oxygen flowing through the wood as wine spends time within imparts a particular flavor profile and texture on the wine that increases in proportion to the amount of time it is stored in oak, how new the oak is, and how much the barrel was toasted (placed over a fiery bier) prior to being finished.  The influence of oak upon a wine can be interpreted as positive or negative depending upon the preferences of the taster.  It is one aspect of the winemaker’s job to create an oak program resulting in a positive interaction between the barrel and the wine that is stored in it.

The Halter Ranch staff and our customers are very pleased and excited with the effect of barrel fermentation on our wines.  It is likely we will continue to see the barrel fermentation program in vintages to come.  If you are interested in experiencing these very special wines firsthand, come check out the 2011 Cotes de Paso red in the main tasting room or the 2011 Block 22 Syrah in the Halter Ranch Wine Club Lounge.

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