It’s that time of year again when new, custom-crafted French oak barrels are delivered to our Sonoma winery, ready to age our youngest vintage of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. I always love the chance to visit one of our local barrel makers, Nadalié cooperage in Calistoga. Nadalié makes our French oak barrels in France, but crafts its American oak barrels in Napa Valley.
The video above demonstrates how American oak wine barrels are made in California, assembling all parts of a wine barrel from start to finish:
As you'll see in this video, the wine barrel-making process can be broken down into five major steps, which we'll also discuss in-depth below:
Jordan Winery aged its cabernet sauvignon in a combination of American and French oak barrels for decades, but when John Jordan took over the winery in 2005, a move toward using 100 percent French oak began. These steps for how wine barrels are made focuses on French oak barrels. The only difference between the making of French and American oak barrels is the forests from which they are sourced, the type of oak and the transportation of the American oak planks from the forest to Napa Valley for barrel making.
Making a wine barrel requires precision and careful attention, starting with the selection of the wood. French oak trees Quercus robur) are common throughout Europe, where the temperatures are cooler, allowing the tree to grow slowly and develop the desirable tight grain. The most respected forests in France are Alliers, Tronçais, Nevers and Vosges, and Nadalié sources oak barrel wood for Jordan wines primarily from Nevers to Troncais. Once the tree reaches ideal maturity of around 80 years old (on average), it is milled into planks. The oak planks are then seasoned for two to three years by being exposed to the elements. This seasoning pulls the majority of the tannins from the wood, leaving a wood with softer tannins, which will be imparted into wine. Barrels made with well-seasoned wood allow the wine to seep into the grain and extract flavor compounds like vanillins that contribute to the wine’s final flavor profile.
Once the wood has been thoroughly seasoned, the planks are cut, joined, and planed into precisely-shaped barrel staves. Next, the staves (25 to 30 per barrel) are placed loosely side by side inside what will be the top ring of the barrel. Each stave is unique, and they must fit together just so to ensure that the finished product is water (and wine!) tight. The staves are placed in a pattern of thick, thin, medium to ensure that stress is distributed evenly around the barrel. This process of placing the staves is called "raising the barrel."
Once the staves are placed, a second ring is added, roughly aligning the staves. Next, the staves are brushed with water and the whole thing is placed over a wood-burning fire to heat, softening the wood. A pulley system is used to slowly pull the softened staves together at the bottom, bending them into the classic symmetrical shape, sealing the barrel.
Once the barrel is formed, it is toasted over an open fire. Nadalié uses an oak wood fire, which is a slow fire that works to develop just the flavors we like rather than degrading them or over-toasting the wood creating excess caramelization or other flavors that might obscure our fruit. Each barrel is toasted until it achieves the "toastiness" we like. This toasting phase is the best part. The smell of a new barrel over an oak fire is like catnip for a cellar master. That toastiness seeps deep into the wood, lending complex flavors to the wine that is aged in the barrel.
Next, the rings are fitted around the barrel, tightly compressing the staves, and a bunghole is drilled. Grooves are cut inside the barrel to allow for the headpieces to fit snugly into the top and bottom. Each barrel is unique, so the openings must be carefully measured to determine the size and shape of the headpieces. Once the headpieces have been made, the hoops are removed from the barrel in order to place the headpieces inside. The hoops are then replaced around the barrel and tightened. Finally, the barrel is sanded.
Nadalié than ships the completed French oak barrels on containers to the U.S. Upon arrival at Jordan Winery, every barrel is thoroughly inspected through a four-step process:
Inspection only takes a few minutes per wine barrel, and it’s time well spent.
Finally, we conduct several tastings to evaluate each barrel for toastiness, tannin profile, and other qualities. Every barrel—even those made by the same cooperage, using the same method, and made from wood from the same forest—is unique. Just as it is imperative for winemakers to understand the personality of each vintage’s grapes, it is equally important for us to understand the personality of the barrels, and to determine whether or not those personalities complement each other.
At Jordan, we enjoy working with coopers like Nadalié because they preserve the hands-on, old-world techniques for crafting the oak barrels that are so essential to our California wine operation. A few years ago, Nadalié surprised us by making a one-of-a-kind, commemorative France oak barrel to mark winemaker Rob Davis's 40th harvest. at Jordan
You can learn more about our winemaking process in articles on how Jordan Winery uses the old-world winemaking technique called batonnage (or stirring the lees) and get a glimpse into what happens inside a wine barrel.
Join our rewards program to earn points to redeemable for exclusive experiences at Jordan Estate.
Videographer, photographer, writer and publicist. Find me on weekends trying to capture footage of the elusive Jordan Estate jack rabbits and turkeys.
Winery Jordan 1474 Alexander Valley Road • Healdsburg, CA 95448-9003
800-654-1213 • firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2017 Jordan Vineyard & Winery. All rights reserved.