Tasting Barrel-Fermented Wines

Last week our good friends Jaap and Janette visited the winery, and Assistant Winemaker Bobby Donnell led us through a very fun and educational tasting of our barrel fermented wines. We did a side-by-side tasting of the 2010 Morisoli Cabernet—with two glasses of wine from the same vintage, same vineyard, picked the same day—except that one wine had been fermented in the traditional manner in stainless tanks, and one had been fermented in new French oak barrels. It was a fantastic opportunity to see the exact effects of barrel fermentation on a wine.


Bob and friends enjoy a tasting of barrel-fermented wines at the winery

Barrel fermentation, a technique which started in Bordeaux and has gained popularity in Napa, is praised for producing a wine that is rounder and softer on the palate. While it is a traditional technique used for whites, its use with Cabernet Sauvignon is growing as winemakers appreciate its ability to impart silky tannins and a lush roundness to “big” Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet. Note that barrel fermenting is completely different than barrel aging. In barrel aging, wines that have been fermented in stainless tanks are then stored in barrels and left to age. With barrel fermenting, the entire fermentation and aging process takes place in barrels.


Assistant Winemaker Bobby Donnell with Janette

Joel is one of the California pioneers of the technique of barrel fermenting, having used it for many years. “The complexity and richness it lends is fantastic,” he says. “The earlier the oak is introduced to wine the better. The wood tannins from the barrels are especially important in stabilizing the color, and any harsher, greener components are dissipated. In my opinion, barrel fermenting makes a ‘sexier’ wine.”

At Amici Joel uses barrel fermentation for our single vineyard wines, such as the 2010 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2010 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Joel keeps the wines separate right up until the final blending process so that he can fine-tune the blend with just the right amount of barrel fermented wine.

 The vast majority of wines will never see barrel fermentation because it’s an expensive, labor-intensive process, no question about it. During the fermentation process, the barrels are rotated two to four turns, several times a day. The technique requires judicious control and strict supervision to obtain best results. Visitors to the winery can see that we use plexiglass heads on some of the barrels to get a visual aid on how the rotation is mixing the barrel, and to make sure the “cap” (the flavor-imparting combination of skins and pulp that floats to the top of the barrel) breaks up sufficiently with each turn. “While the results are great, and we think it’s worth the effort, there’s nothing efficient about this process,” says Joel.

If you’re interested in learning more about how we use barrel fermentation in our wines at Amici, visit us at the winery and we’d love to show you how we manage the process. And if your timing is right, we just may have some individual barrel-fermented lots for you to taste!