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Impact of Wine Barrels on the Finished Bottle of Wine

Springtime here at the O’Connell Family Vineyard Estate is a season ripe with excitement with the promise only a new growing season can bring. During our daily forays through the vineyard, life springs up around us. We see our first exhilarating glimpse of what we can expect to develop throughout the summer and into the harvest. With the budbreak behind us and the growth of our vines well underway with fruit set in process, we are eagerly assessing our harvest potential grape tonnage so we can finalize our barrel order for the upcoming harvest.

The barrels that house the O’Connell Family Wines to age our wine to the perfect moment are carefully selected for the complexity they lend to create an expressive bottle of wine. The symphonic finish of a magnificent bottle of wine is the culmination of a well-orchestrated effort, with the barrels playing a much more significant role than many people realize.

Wine Barrel Selection

Wine in the US is most frequently aged in American or French oak barrels. We opt to age our wine in French oak because it offers more compatibility with the flavor profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. With its assertive flavor characteristics, American oak tends to put our wine out of balance. The more elegant vanilla chocolate and caramel quality of the French oak perfectly complements the profile of our Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our barrels are meticulously selected from various cooperages that make barrels using wood harvested from a variety of French forests. We think of barrels like a seasoning for food. Different forests offer different flavor profiles in the finished barrels, which are then crafted by separate coopers. This variety provides nuances of complexity in the finished wine. Whether coopered in France or coopered in the US using staves produced in France, our barrel selection comes from a variety of importers. One of our primary importers is Seguin Moreau in Napa, which has a rich history in French cooperage dating back to 1838. Working with the most exceptional, tightly grained Haute Futaie French oak, Sequin Moreau coopers barrels from trees aged 150-200 years. These barrels are well-suited for the longer aging process we use for our Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wine Barrel Toasting

The artistry that goes into toasting wine barrels has an equally powerful impact on the finished bottle as selecting the perfect wood to create the perfect barrels. During the process of fashioning the staves into barrels, the staves are heated to make them pliable. A wood-chip fire applied to the inside of the staves not only makes the staves malleable enough to be fitted into barrel hoops, but it also imparts beautiful flavor notes to the wood.

Different grape varietals as well as the stylistic signature of the winemaker call for different levels of toasting, from light to heavy and levels in between. Each toast level imparts different flavor notes. A light toast denotes only minimal darkening of the staves and imparts notes of vanilla and caramel. A medium toast is a bit darker – similar to toasted bread – and imparts notes of roasted nuts, vanilla, and coffee. Finally, a heavy toast resembles very dark wood, with flavor notes of dark chocolate, coffee beans, ginger, and nutmeg. Adding even more complexity to these toasting levels is the intensity of the flame and duration of the time it is applied to the staves. The inside of the barrels may also be scored to allow more wood exposure to the wine.

Here at the O’Connell Family Estate, we use a medium to medium+ toasting level because it provides an elegant complement to our Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A heavier toast will create a heavily oaked wine, which we believe detracts from and overpowers the luscious flavor of our grapes. We strongly adhere to the belief that wine should authentically express its innate character without overemphasis of an oak barrel.

Finishing the Barrel

After the French oak barrel has been toasted, the metal barrel rings are hammered into place to secure the staves into position. This requires skill from the coopers to prevent damaging the oak. Then the barrelhead is carefully placed on top of the barrel and hammered into position. The barrelhead may be toasted or not. A toasted head is an option for the winemaker who desires additional oak flavor. Often this is a choice based on the varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which often benefits from the addition of a toasted head. O’Connell Family Wines usually selects a few barrels with toasted heads for some of the vineyard blocks that have deep flavor profiles.

Aging in Barrels

The practice of aging wine in oak barrels dates back to the expansion of the Roman empire, who sought to provide all the necessities for its troops, which – of course – included wine. In a rather happy accidental discovery, Romans noticed wines transported in oak barrels had more complex flavors and better qualities than those kept in the heavy clay urns typically used to store and transport wine. Thus, the practice of aging wine in oak barrels was born.

During the aging process, the wine is allowed to further develop its own flavors while mingling with the complex flavor notes of the toasted oak barrel. The length of time required to allow the wine’s symphony of flavors to emerge varies from grape to grape and season to season. Knowing how long a vintage needs to age in the barrels is yet another level of artistry that contributes to the final finish of a bottle of wine.

At O’Connell Family Wines, we age our Cabernet Sauvignon 3 to 4 years, twice the modern standard. The extended aging requires twice the amount of storage space in the winery and twice the amount of monthly barrel topping to replace evaporated wine. The reward is well worth the wait, as the extra time in the barrels creates a wine with greater complexity and integration. We age our Chardonnay 18 to 24 months, again longer than is the industry standard. The longer a Chardonnay ages, the longer the flavors are allowed to soften and become integrated, avoiding heavy oak flavors that we feel overpower the varietal characteristic inherent in the Chardonnay grape. Wine gets some of its tannins from the oak barrels, and with increased aging, these mellow to create a smooth, integrated finish.

The Influence of New, Once, and Twice Used Barrels on Winemaking

The first time an oak barrel is used to age wine, it imparts more flavor notes to the vintage than it will in subsequent uses. For this reason, we always want the correct blend of new, once, and twice used barrels for each vintage. The mastery to know what blend of barrels will be needed for each vintage is a skill developed over years of practice. It is a key part of the winemaking art. After each bottling, we review our barrels and decide which ones have worked well for each vineyard block in the past. We make a preliminary assessment of each barrel for every block we harvest from the vineyard. Our goal is to use a masterful blend of new and seasoned barrels to accent the distinctive character of the great varietal, the soil qualities, and the vintage year. A cooler growing season will call for limiting the number of new barrels, as they will more readily overpower the elegance of the vintage. A hotter growing season will include more new oak because it will balance a richer wine.

Winemaking is the combination of art and science to create a masterpiece by orchestrating dozens of variables that go into producing a perfectly finished bottle of wine. At O’Connell Family Wines, we pride ourselves on anticipating and controlling these variables to fashion a bottle that is our signature of elegance, refinement, and authenticity.

In keeping with our philosophy of sustainability, O’Connell Family Wines repurposes our retired French oak barrels into beautiful entertainment cheese boards, serving trays, wine holders, and even dog beds. Shop our selection here.

Enjoy a bottle of our elegantly handcrafted wine by shopping at our online store or join our Decanter Society Wine Club to have our limited production wines delivered to your doorstep throughout the year.