Once vintage work is finished the wine is racked to barrel, where it will stay for usually 12-18 months. Each year I buy a new French barrel or 2 to fill. The rest of the wine goes into older French barrels or some old American oak. ‘Racking’ the wine is basically transferring it from a stainless steel tank, via a pump, into the barrel. It is done gently to ensure any solids (yeast cells etc.) are left behind, and only clear wine goes into the barrel.
I love French oak! A freshly delivered barrel smells like warm delicious toasty vanilla. But too much of it can overpower the wine. My aim in the winery is to make elegant, savoury wine that expresses the characteristics of my single vineyard. If I use too much new oak my wine will just smell and taste like the oak! So I use mostly seasoned (1-5 years old) oak. I have a couple of older American barrels that I use as well. American oak is stronger and sweeter than French oak, but as old barrels they impart minimal oak influence in the wine.
I use hogshead barrels because I think it provides the best oak surface to wine ratio. The name ‘hogshead’ refers to the size of the barrel – 300 litres. Other sizes include the Barrique (225 litres) and Puncheon (475 litres). During cooperage (making the barrels) the inside of the barrel and the head of the barrel are toasted to varying degrees: light, medium or heavy. During it’s time in barrel the wine tannins soften, the fruit characteristics concentrate and some oak flavours will be imparted.
This is the beautiful, if not romantic, side to wine making!