The best winemakers will tell you: after their wine is made, the big decision is the barrel.
Winemakers choose their winemaking tools carefully: fermenters, sorting tables, yeast, etc. – and nothing elicits more time and thought than the choice of barrels.
above, Chris Mazepink with his “palette” of flavors.
Rick Mafit, owner and winemaker at Oregon’s Mystic Winery, is a highly respected expert on wine barrels and has sold them to Oregon wineries for many years.
at right, Rick with Seguin Moreau barrel
Almost as much as Rick Mafit finds it essential to source fruit from excellent vineyards he values the time his wines spend in barrels. He finds this aging period crucial to the depth of his wines’ flavors and, while he acknowledges, “A lot of people are doing wines that are released within 10 or 11 months of harvest,” he believes, “especially for reds, that’s just too soon.”
“The different flavors from the barrels – they really matter. It’s like throwing the right spice in with pasta and different tomatoes…”
Mafit’s big reds – the Cabernet and Merlot – always spend two years in the barrel. He said, “The Cabernet really needs the time to come around and mellow out and for the tannins to get together and align in the right direction so they don’t just kill you when they get into your mouth. The Merlot really benefits from it, too.”
Since Mafit prefers to make more Bordeaux-style wines (rather than the often heavily-oaked California-style) he uses 30-45% brand new barrels. He added, “I’m a real fan of French oak. American oak is okay in Zinfandel and okay in Cabernet, but to make the best wines, it isn’t something that I’m looking for. I’m looking for more of a refined character.”
Oregon has one cooperage, highly respected and used by many wineries. it is the only cooperage in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon Barrel Works
at right, Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly
sampling wine from his barrels
He explained that, “Traditionally American oak has been coopered by Americans who are used to making whiskey barrels. Whiskey barrels are once-filled. They don’t do anything with them for ten years – they don’t rack them, top them, anything. They weren’t aging them correctly or splitting the staves correctly.” Mafit has found that American oak tends to impart more of a banana, vanilla, or cedar quality to the wine, whereas he’s more interested in the flavors he’s found French oak has to offer: coffee, spice, cocoa. He added, “American oak tends to stick out like a sore thumb.”
Mafit’s barrel cocktail consists of the French Seguin-Moreau for his Cabernet and Merlot, a thin stave French barrel by Chateau Freres also for his Cabernet and Merlot, and classic medium toast Francois Freres and Rosseau for his Pinot noir and Syrah. He noted that the Rosseau (“a small cooper in Burgundy”) gives the barrel a hint of “bacon fat texture that really compliments the wine.”
Mafit has dabbled with American oak. “I have tried a little bit of three-year air dried American oak coopered by Seguin-Moreau called the u-stave barrel and it’s very heavily toasted,” he said. “The three-year air drying makes it very reminiscent of French oak. I’ve used that for a couple years in the Barbera and I really like it. There’s a little bit in the Zinfandel. I’m trying to keep prices on the wines down (French oak is really expensive).”
Since most of Mafit’s wines feature single-vineyard fruit, he does lots of experimenting during fermentation to tweak and “introduce nuance in the wine.” He said, “I do lots of different yeasts. I try and age those yeasts in different woods…and I’m always experimenting.”
“I think it’s hard to be complacent when you’re making wine. It’s more fun to be looking at new things and how to improve flavors.”
Chris Mazepink’s Palate of Barrels and Their Flavors
Chris Mazepink, whose credentials include winemaking jobs at Oregon’s Shea Wine Cellars, his current position as winemaker at Benton Lane, and his own winery, Ebony, has an “all oak” strategy for his winemaking. Chris is expert at both fermenting his wines in large oak tanks, and then moving the wine to a wide range of different oak barrels. He calls his barrel wall (above) his “palate of flavors” and draws from many different barrels to create his Pinot noirs.