BY Henry Work
Winemakers who ponder the question What is best for the
wine? usually find themselves addressing a second question:
What can we afford? Answering this second question
often involves a series of trade-offs in the vineyard or cellar,
as winemakers strike their own unique balance between quality
With cooperage selection high on the list of most winemakers
quality tools, how can you minimize your expenditures in this
vital area while still meeting your quality goals? Here are some
ABCs of barrel alternatives
The oaks of Eastern Europe are the same species as in France
Quercus sessilis and Q. pendunculata (reputedly sub-species of
Q. robur). Q. petraea and Q. robur grow in Hungary and are the
same species as in France. Admittedly the terroir is slightly
different, but given the other variables of air-drying and toasting,
the differences I have experienced in blind tastings are negligible.
Purchased from reputable cooperage houses and yes, there
are many barrels made from Eastern European oak will cost
$50 to $150 less than those from French oak, while still providing
elegance and complexity.
There are also barrels made from blends of French, Eastern European,
and American oaks, in various combinations, which are less expensive
than barrels of pure French oak.
If French oak is beyond the cost category for a particular wine,
consider reducing the number of French oak barrels and substitute
some three-year air-dried American oak. That extra year outside
in the elements softens the American oak tannins. The wood shows
nicely without the need for the heavier toast levels or for the
heads to be toasted. And the less aggressive wood flavors allow
the wines fruit to show through.
Also, high quality, not totally extracted, used barrels are available
today, since some ultra-premium wineries use French oak barrels
for only one or two vintages. The barrels are resold at between
50% to 75% of their original price quite a savings, especially
if they have been used only six months for Chardonnay. Look for
these barrels in trade journal ads and various online exchange
cubes, beans, and chips
Refurbishing existing barrels has proven to be a solid cost-saver.
Putting oak inserts into the barrels seems to provide more complexity
than shaving barrels or the use of chips. The inserts are available
in French, Eastern European, and American oak. Several brands
offer wood air-dried a full two years and thoroughly toasted.
While the inserts placed into a barrel through the bung hole are
less expensive and easier to deal with, they provide only one-third
to one-half the surface area of the style inserted by removing
Another alternative is the use of oak inserts in tanks. Special
fittings are usually welded to the tank walls, but once in place,
the fittings remain as inserts are replaced. While the installation
of the inserts into their framework is somewhat laborious, it
can be done by the cellar crew, and can then be used to add oak
flavor to large amounts of wine.
The price point for some wines cant justify the use of cooperage,
but the wine benefits by the taste of oak. There are many good
chip (and chip-type) products on the market. Made with well-aged
wood, thoroughly toasted, and relatively inexpensive to purchase
and use, they add a depth of character and oak flavor to wines.
These products can be added to the grape receiving hopper, into
the tank before fermentation, into storage tanks, after fermentation,
or into older barrels via stainless steel sleeves placed through
A word of caution when using the chip products: consider your
pump and wine-moving systems before dumping chips into the fermentor.
The large diameter or long, splinter-like chips may clog a pump
or damage rubber gaskets. Test your system with the various oak
alternatives that you are interested in using before you get into
the middle of harvest.
Another new technology for cost-cutting the barrel part of winemaking
is the use of micro-oxygenation adding minute amounts of
oxygen into a tank of wine at a very precise rate. The cost factors
of the oxygen generator, diffuser, staff training, and support
services are far less than the equivalent tank capacity in French
oak barrels. Running the system takes much less time than racking
and topping barrels. Used in conjunction with oak chips or inserts
in a tank of wine, taste character can approach that of barrel-aged
Use of micro-ox to supply O2 to wine does require the careful
attention of the winemaker as input needs are different for each
variety and style. A new use of the micro-ox system has been to
introduce O2 to wine in barrels in precise amounts and thereby
eliminate the routine racking regimes. While this system does
not eliminate the cost for barrels, it may reduce a significant
amount of cellar labor.
Other tricks of the trade
Order and take your barrels in the off-season (March
to June). Typically, most wineries want their new barrels in late
summer for barrel fermentation, and early fall for use with red wines.
It is the northern hemisphere wineries with their insatiable
demand for cooperage bunched into this small window who create
problems for the cooperage houses. Producers simply cannot make all
the required barrels during these critical periods. They end up making
barrels year-round and storing them, and are thus generally willing
to discount barrels from March to June in order to keep storage costs
Consolidate orders with other wineries or groups.
Most cooperages operate on the premise of discounts based upon quantity.
If you can get together with your neighbors to all order from the
same cooperage house, you may qualify for a discounted price. But
dont expect a discount if everyone is ordering different styles
Explore volume discounts. For large wineries, buying
from fewer barrel producers may qualify you for discounts. While a
diverse selection of cooperage helps to provide complexity in the
oak flavors, ordering from 30 or 40 brands of cooperage probably leads
only to migraines for the winemaker, accountant, or cellar master
who is charged with tracking them.
Stay with basic styles. The standard oak barrels are
the 225-liter Bordeaux or 228-liter Burgundian export style. Anything
beyond that takes more time and effort to make. So, if you want to
keep cooperage costs down, stay with these basic styles, and dont
ask for exotic woods, toast levels, or other barrel styles.
The exception to this is the 200-liter bourbon style; these barrels
do cost less, but only from the few cooperages that make this size.
The disadvantage to the 200-liter style is the lack of chime, which
makes holding and moving the barrel difficult, and the often rough
finish, which tends to wear holes in the cellar workers pants.
Go large. Where practical, purchase larger size barrels,
which cost less per liter. E&J Gallo Winery developed the 265-liter
barrel to maximize their gallonage within their warehouse, while still
being able to utilize standard metal barrel pallets. This barrel is
now made by a number of cooperage houses. It is 40 liters larger than
the standard barrel, while using essentially the same floor space.
Australia and China favor 300- and 400-liter barrels, and there are
also puncheons (500 liter barrels) available. All of these maximize
space and capacity with lower cost per liter.
Mesh with your standard. Seek cooperage suppliers
whose standard barrel is what you want, not a cooperage
where your request becomes a special order. If you do
have a special need in your wine barrels, try to find the cooperage
that normally makes that barrel. Even if you have to work with them
to fine tune it to your specifications, it will usually
cost less than asking another cooperage to make it. This is especially
true if it requires new or different equipment for the cooperage.
Take direct delivery. When possible, have barrels
delivered directly to the winery via the shipping truck or container;
this reduces warehouse and delivery costs and minimizes handling (and
damage). Going through a warehouse or using local trucking can add
between $5 and $20 to the cost of each barrel.
Reduce packaging. Packaging costs money and needs
to be recycled or, unfortunately, disposed of. Ask for less wrapping
and packaging and ask the cooperage to pass its savings on to you.
Consider leasing. While leasing barrels normally costs
a bit more in the long run, the reduced out-of-pocket expense, often
coming just after bottling and during harvest, may justify this alternative.
Check with your accountant for advantages and disadvantages for your
Negotiate! Last, dont be shy about negotiating.
Barrels are in good supply, and most cooperages are well stocked with
aged wood. And they want your business. For an order of significant
quantity and prompt payment, they may be willing to give you a bargain.
For questions to author, contact:
3190 Highway 128
Calistoga, CA 94515, USA
tel: 707-478-2834; Fax: 707-942-4688
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