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Sometimes the most unexpected vineyard visits appear from nowhere. While researching my article on new trends in premium rosés, I discussed the use of Stockinger barrels with Stockinger’s European agent Thomas Teibert of Domaine de l’Horizon. Thomas asked if I would be interested in going to Domaine de Trévallon at the end of April to see a rare event—the installation of five 3,400L barrels by Franz Stockinger, head of coopers at Fassbinderei Stockinger from Waidhofen-an-der-Ybbs in central Austria. The opportunity to observe this unique occasion, to see this remarkable domaine from a different perspective and taste the results, was one not to be missed.
Domaine de Trévallon, one of the most famous Provence estates, is located on the northwestern slopes of the small Alpilles mountain range overlooking the Rhône Valley, not far from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The domaine’s artistic origins still dominate most articles: The romantic holiday home of Parisian artists, friends of Picasso, their son Eloi Dürrbach’s creation of the wine estate, and planting Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from Château Vignelaure, whose owner Georges Brunet had brought cuttings from his Bordeaux estate Château la Lagune in the 1960s. The quality of Dürrbach’s wines made Trévallon an early flagship for Provence, though Trévallon is not included in the Les Baux de Provence appellation due to the use of 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 50 percent Syrah.
Trévallon’s underground cellar was originally dug out in 1982, with Kennel barrels from the 1970s placed in the cellar at the time. In 1989 and 1999, when more large barrels (“foudres”) were needed, 3,000L barrels from Seguin Moreau were installed.
Building Stockinger Barrels on Site
In 2012, a large modern cellar with fermentation tanks was built above this. Access to the cellar below is via a spiral staircase or a lift, large enough to hold a pallet, but too small to take a foudre. Usually new barrels arrive ready to be moved into a cellar and used, but unless the cellar has access for these large barrels, the winery must either use smaller barrels or build the barrels in the cellar.
Barrels can last 50 years, but when some of the old barrels started to leak, the Dürrbachs knew that these would need to be gradually replaced. Antoine, Eloi’s son, had been to a friend’s vineyard and tasted wine from Stockinger barrels and was impressed with the quality.
Trévallon decided to replace seven of their 3,000L foudres, with two smaller (2,800L) and five larger (3,400L) foudres, to slightly increase total capacity and to allow for a smaller barrel to remain empty to help during racking. With a six- to twelve-month lead-time to delivery, the two 2,800L foudres were installed in November 2015 with some small barrels for their white wines. Originally the Dürrbachs had wanted to stagger the installation of the new 3,400L foudres, with two in 2016 and three in 2017, but Stockinger preferred to do all five together due to the difficulty of access and to save journeys. The cost is substantial, 63,000€ for the five foudres, including delivery and installation. Franz Stockinger rarely accepts orders that require difficult installation in the cellar. It takes a team of three men one day to install two foudres and, due to the possibility that at first trial (with water) the foudre may leak, another visit may be required.
There is a growing number of domaines using Stockinger, reflecting the current trend to have less overt oak character, with their marketing relying strongly on word-of-mouth between winemakers (they purposely have no website) and Teibert reaching out to clients. Not all domaines wish to advertise that they use Stockinger barrels, preferring to keep this as their secret USP in making their wine. Some promote their use of Stockinger as a by-word to the quality of their wine. Stockinger is happy for this spread to continue slowly as they have reached capacity and cannot take an increase in orders. They produce mainly large oak vats, but also a small quantity of 225L, 300L, 500L, and 600L barrels. Their main market is Austria, Germany, Italy, and France but they also export to South Africa, Israel, and the US (via Rajat Paar at his Domaine de la Côte).
Stockinger uses mainly Austrian and German oak (Quercus sessilis AKA Quercus petraea) for manufacturing their barrels and vats. According to Caroline Gilby, MW, this oak has the tightest grain and higher levels of extractable aromatic compounds such as eugenol, lactones, and vanillin, which Romana Echensperger, MW, describes as contributing “savoury-sweet, spruce honey” characters, and a lower concentration of oak tannins than Quercus robur. The oak is seasoned by the traditional “octaeder” system in the open air to reduce greenness and astringency for 24 to 30 months for the small barrels to 48 to 60 months for the big barrels. The longer the oak is seasoned, the less oaky, toasty character is evident, but this long seasoning means greater cost.
Franz Stockinger arrived with Alexander Wachauer and Tibor Várda and the five foudres on trucks on Sunday. Early the following morning they started work on the first barrel. Pascal Febvre, head of viticulture at Trévallon, also joined the team.
The hoops were eased off using a wedge called a hoop driver, and hammer. The wedge is repeatedly eased round the edge of each hoop and hammered.
After the hoops were removed, diagonal chalk lines were drawn across the barrel as a guide to replace the staves. As each piece of the barrel is unique, their place in the barrel needs to be precisely marked. Each stave was numbered: Roman numerals one end, Arabic at the other (later covered when the hoops were replaced) to ensure the staves were replaced the right way round. The heads were also numbered with matching Roman or Arabic numbers.
A temporary half hoop was added at each end to keep an arc of staves attached to the top and bottom of the head, as the base to rebuild the barrel.
The staves, headpieces, and hoops were then moved down to the lower cellar in the lift and then reassembled in situ.
The two end “heads” were replaced on either end of one of the fixed arcs with long lengths of reeds placed in between each piece of wood. The reeds will swell when the wine is put in, to further tighten the fit and prevent leaks.
The other half of the barrel was placed on top, then the staves, with a smear of mastic at each end for extra waterproofing, were replaced, also with reeds between each.
Because the staves are held together by pressure, the fit becomes tighter and tighter as more staves are added.
The hoops were hammered on, again using the hoop driver to push them back into their original tight fit. As they were pushed further and further on the barrel, Alexander and Tibor worked in unison with one holding the hoop driver, the other swinging the hammer.
The final barrel has a seamless smoothness showing no signs of being taken apart, moved or hammered.
Questions of Taste
What impact would five new and two one-year-old Stockinger barrels have on Trévallon’s red wines?
Ostiane Icard, Eloi’s daughter, gave me a tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs from the 2014 and 2015 vintages still in barrel. Trévallon ages the wines for two years before blending them together. There is no selection or blending, as they work on the principle that under Pascal Febvre’s careful management of the vineyards, all the grapes come in perfect condition, and all will be included (as there is no second label or special cuvée), purely reflecting the vintage and terroir. This explains the attraction of Stockinger barrels. As Franz Stockinger explained, his aim is to make barrels that do not add layers of oak taste, but enhance the structure and taste of the fruit. The oak is not toasted, and is a blend of German oaks for softness and Austrian oaks for structure. This character has meant that Stockinger have been for some time highly regarded by white wine makers and more recently producers of quality rosé and red wine.
Using new barrels is a sensitive issue due to their impact on taste. Winemakers using smaller barrels of 250L, 300L, or 500L often have a steady turnaround of new, one-, two-, and three-year-old barrels to harmonize the impact of new barrels. The smaller the barrel, the greater the ratio of wood-to-wine contact. With the larger foudres, there is less oak contact. New foudres are not meant to contribute the oak character to the wine as with smaller barrels. In early July, the five new foudres at Trevallon were filled with water and 1kg salt per hl, to remove as much of the oak tannins as possible.
Ostiane and I tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah 2014 from old and new barrels and the same two varieties from the 2015 vintage in Stockinger. Obviously there was the added consideration of age. The 2014 had been a difficult year needing more pumping over while the 2015 had been a very good year for reds. Nevertheless, the wines aged in the old barrels seemed more fruit-forward while those aged in Stockinger appeared more restrained and austere with hidden fruit. They were not as oaky as might have been expected from a year in new foudres, but more structural.
It will be interesting to taste the influence of the Stockinger barrels on the final blend, but the above tasting suggests a touch of extra, firm structure in the wines. The two new barrels introduced in 2015 made up 13 percent of the wine in Stockinger foudres. For the 2016 vintage, 40 percent of the wine will be in Stockinger. (See tasting notes below.)
The installation changed my perspective on this aspect of winemaking. By the end of the three days, I no longer saw the barrel as solely a utensil for making wine but as an item of beauty in itself, lovingly handled and worked on by a team of craftsmen.
A big thank you to the Stockinger team who smiled for all three days and accepted my husband and I asking questions and taking photos while they worked, and to Ostiane Icard for being so generous with her time and tasting.
Notes from the barrel tasting
Syrah 2014, old foudres. Not an easy year so needed to destalk, pumping over and more ageing on the lies. Ripe black mulberries and blackberries, with firm, almost austere wild berry fruit tannins. Hints of garrigue and stony minerality and lifted by beautiful fresh acidity. Reminiscent of northern Rhône Syrah.
Syrah 2014, new Stockinger foudres. Less ripe black fruit evident. Austere wild hedgerow fruit with firm, slightly severe, inky tannins. Fresh acidity with a slight terroir chalky character. A sense of dormant power, beautiful depth and blackness.
Syrah 2015, old foudres. 2015 regarded as a near perfect year for red wines. A year younger and the fruit has yet to show. Powerful mineral and iodine character typical of the variety. Whiffs of spicy perfume, notes of stone, salt, and hedgerow fruit. Hidden layers suggesting complexity, but for now dominated by firm dry tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, old foudres. Beautiful fragrant floral aromas, deep purple violets, followed by intense blackcurrant fruit and fresh blackcurrant leafy freshness and acidity. Firm silky tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, new Stockinger foudres. Youthful austerity with intense black, inky fruit and mouth-coating dry, firm tannins. Structural and powerful.
Like Bourbon? (Of course you do …) Here are a few lesser-known facts about this now-popular aged spirit that might just make you a bit more popular among your whiskey loving friends.
1) Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Why? Because it’s the law.
In a 1908 court case, Justice Robb of the United States Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia wrote “it is well understood that Bourbon whiskey is a Kentucky product made principally out of corn, with sufficient rye and barley malt added to distinguish it from straight corn whiskey.” Source.
President William Howard Taft refined the definition on December 27, 1909, deciding that bourbon is “made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize),” “distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume, and must then be aged in new charred-oak containers.” Source.
(See a cool announcement about the Taft Decision from The Chicago Daily Tribune here: “After the president had taken part in opening the Christmas stockings in the morning he went to the executive office and passed the remainder of the holiday in writing his declaration.”)
The Code of Federal Regulations (1969) compiled the stipulations: “‘Bourbon whisky’ … is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers.” Source.
2) Corn gives bourbon its sweetness.
During fermentation, starch converts to sugar and sugar converts to alcohol. Corn contains the highest level of starch of the grains used to make bourbon and therefore has the highest yield of alcohol per bushel.
In addition, although the law stipulates 51%, most bourbon mash bills have a higher corn content (anywhere from 60-80%). For example, Maker’s Mark contains 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. (See a list of various mash bills here.)
Malted barley means the barley has been soaked, sprouted, then dried — germinated in order to release pent-up enzymes. These enzymes help turn the starches into sugar. Wheat, a quieter grain, allows the sweetness of the corn to shine through; rye, more brassy, will result in a spicier spirit.
3) The barrel shortage was real.
In “The Impending Bourbon Shortage” I mentioned that with the bourbon boom, an influx of craft distilleries, and the shrinking of the logging industry, we were running out of barrels.
Adam Spiegel of Sonoma County Distilling Co., who has had barrel contracts since 2010, recalls cooperages turning down distillers at the gate.
“Earlier this year and late last year, all these new distillers came out of nowhere asking cooperages for more barrels. But the cooperages only had wood contracts for a certain amount of poundage. They ran out and had to ration what was left.”
Admittedly, the barrel shortage primarily affected small distilleries. But it spurred a barrel-making revival: existing cooperages have expanded and new cooperages have formed — many sourcing wood locally, like Rogue Spirits which opened their own cooperage in Newport, Oregon.
“We wanted to know what would happen if our Oregon crafted beers and spirits, mashed and brewed with Oregon ingredients we grew ourselves, were aged in barrels we coopered with white oak from the same terroir as our farms, brewery and distillery.” (Source.)
4) Charred-oak literally means the barrels are set on fire.
The barrel is burned on the inside, which creates a charcoal layer. The thickness of the charcoal layer can vary based on the length of the char: a No.1 Char is 15 seconds, No.2 is 30, No.3 is 35, and No.4 is 55 seconds. Source.
The charcoal layer has several effects. First, it acts as a filter and absorbs undesirable flavors. “The molecules that make young whisky so harsh are drawn to the barrel’s wall, creating a thin layer of everything you don’t want in a drink.” Source.
Second, the char adds color. This has led to a new trend of over-charring barrels. “Whiskey comes from the still completely white,” says Spiegel. “Imagine soaking water in charcoal — if the barrel is super charred, you get color faster, but you also get charcoal flavor. It might look old, but it could have been aged for only six months.”
Third, the wood releases flavors — and charring speeds up the process. Hemicellulose, or wood sugar, caramelizes on the inside of the barrel; lignin breaks down into vanillin (guess what flavor that produces); oak lactones result in coconut undertones; and tannins, or wood spice, give you a headache. (Just kidding. Tannins make the whiskey dry. And give you a headache.)
5) The angels get a share … but the devil also gets a cut.
As bourbon ages inside the barrel, a percentage of the spirit is lost to evaporation. This is referred to as the Angels’ Share. Why? Perhaps an ancient distiller filled his rackhouse with barrels, and prayed that God would send a guardian angel to watch over every cask. Then, he came back and found his 20-year-old whiskey had lost 40% of its volume. While the dratted angel waited for the spirit to age, he must have taken a sip! And then another…
Depending on the climate, more alcohol or more water is lost during evaporation. In dry, hot climates barrels lose more water; in cool, humid climates barrels lose more alcohol. And these climates can exist within the same rackhouse. In Kentucky, the top floors are dry and hot and the bottom floors cool and moist. Distillers even things out by rotating barrels (Maker’s Mark still rotates its 500-pound barrels by hand) or by mixing barrels pre-bottling.
(Or if you’re lucky like Spiegel, your barrels have consistent evaporation. “Sonoma County Distilling Co. is 15 miles away from the coast. We get fog in the morning, it burns off by midday, and then fog in the afternoon. This gives us a very even-keeled angel’s share.”)
The Devil’s Cut refers to bourbon that remains trapped inside the wood of the barrel after it has been emptied. Jim Beam made the phrase popular when it extracted the bourbon, blended it with extra-aged stuff, and bottled it at 90 proof “for robust, premium bourbon with deep color, aroma and character.” Source.
6) Finally: Bourbon does not have to be distilled in Kentucky.
There is a common misconception that, to have the name, bourbon must come from Kentucky (perhaps because it originated in or close to Bourbon County, KY) but it must only be made in the USA.
In 1964, the United States Congress declared bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States.” Source. And the Code of Federal Regulations states that “‘bourbon’ shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.” Source.
7) (Bonus!) But the only thing you really need to know about Bourbon…
Is that you need a glass — especially after this. In fact, so do I.