Oak barrels are used for maturing the wines in the cellar before bottling. The juice can be fermented and macerated directly in the barrels (standing up and one end taken off) which some believe gives a better integration of the wood. More commonly the wine is racked to the oak barrel after finished fermentation and left to mature there from 6 to 36 months.
We tend to just use them for around 9 months right now for our still young wines though. The oak allows the wine to breathe via a minuscule exchange of oxygen between wood and wine. This rounds off the texture of the wine and it also helps stabilise the colour pigments in red wines. Finally, the oak also contributes with tannins and flavour compounds like vanilla, smoke and spices to the wine. The barrel adds more aromas and tannins the first years and becomes a more neutral vessel for maturing with age.
There a many kinds, sizes and qualities of oak barrels and equally many different beliefs and styles on how to use them.
At Binivista balance is key in most things! Also when it comes to the use of oak barrels of course. We work so hard in the vineyards to get the most pristine fruit, that it would be a pity masking this with too much oak.
Hence, we have decided to use only 500 liters French oak barrels of extremely high quality and a gentle medium toasting. All factors that limit the potentially strong influence of oak on our wines.
The larger volume of 500 liter versus a normal 225 liter barrique gives a different ratio between wine/oak. The quality of the wood is also a key thing (and an expensive one!). To ensure we get the highest quality of oak possible, and aged patiently for 3-5 years outside to be seasoned to a perfect level, we work with 3 of France's most famous cooperages. Burgundian super-star Francois Fréres, Bordeaux all time top player Demptos and finally sublime Dargaud & Jaeglé from a tiny vilage between Beaujolais and the Maconnais.
The extended ageing or "seasoning" of the oak staves prior to assembling the barrel is key to quality, but also something that makes great oak barrels even more expensive. But as always at Binivista, we only want the best of the best for our wines! The rain gradually washes the bitter harsh tannin out of the oak and this thus results in a way more elegant tannin structure in our finished wines.
When it comes to the level of toasting, we always opt for medium / medium-light toasting. The toasting is actually a part of the process used when assembling the barrels by hand. To make the wooden planks bendable, the cooper assembles the barrel over open fire. This process can be done over less or more time and a harder or milder fire. The harder the "toasting" the more aroma, especially of the spicy and sweet kind, the wood gives to the wine. The lighter the tasting the more elegant aromas and in general less impact on the taste/aroma on the wine.
The oak's impact on the wine is strongest the first year when the barrel is new, and decreases slowly over the first 3 years till the wood becomes neutral. We like our beautiful barrel's gentle "kiss of personality" to our wines so only use them the first 3 years.
Finally, we only let certain of our wines rest in oak barrels, not all. Our fresh young white, rosé and our Grenache dominated red, we prefer to keep their pure fruity expression.
When we decide to age one of our wines in an oak barrel, we carefully monitor the development and taste the wines very often to ensure they are only left in there, just long enough to reach harmony, perfection and that ever important balance.
Our barrels rest in a special room where we can control temperature and humidity separately from the rest of the cellar. A stable not too cool and not too warm temperature at around 18C is important for the development of the wines and a relatively high humidity is also key to limit the evaporation from the barrels. We still check the barrels weekly to ensure they are completely full and top up where needed. It's very important to keep the air pocket on top on the wine as small as possible to avoid oxidation.