Rotary horizontal toasting – science comes to the art of barrel making

There aren’t many wine events for consumers here – I guess wineries must think they’re preaching to the choir.  Once a month, however, our local newspaper La Rioja organizes a tutored tasting by a Rioja winemaker that I try not to miss.

This month’s tasting was unique because the topic was oak.  As you know, the choice of different types of oak (American, French, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish and even Mongolian), the cooperage and the level of toasting are an important part of the winemaker’s arsenal. The novelty of this tasting was a demonstration by a local cooperage, Quercus, of the influence of different levels of toasting on the same wine using the same type of barrel.

Barrelmaking is a craft where precision is the key.  Barrels are assembled without nails or screws, only steel hoops holding the staves together.  Fire is an important part of this process, because heat shapes the wood, making it easier to bend and toasting the inside of the barrel gives flavor to the wine.  The toasting is normally done over a wood fire and the heat generally can’t be applied uniformly which creates variations from one barrel to another.  Coopers make their barrels with light, medium or heavy toast, and often medium + or heavy +.  Although the primary use of oak in winemaking is to slowly microoxigenate the wine, creating long strings of tannins that help the wine to age, the level of toast can provide different flavor sensations.

Quercus has taken the toasting process one step further with its rotary horizontal toasting process, precisely applying different heat intensities over varying amounts of time to create uniformly toasted barrels to the exact specifications of the winemaker.

Quercus uses four types of toasting, Haro, Borgoña (Burgundy), Ribera and Côte d’Or.  They differ on the rate of increase, decrease and maintenance of temperature throughout the process. 

In the first part of the tasting we tried Haro, Borgoña and Ribera toasts with the same wine. With Haro, I noticed a high level of toast on the nose but especially on the palate, with not much fruit showing through.

With Ribera, it was easier to detect the fruit but again, the toast seemed to predominate.

Borgoña was my favorite, with less of a toasty sensation and more elegance (Readers of Inside Rioja should have figured this out already!)

Côte d’Or was more difficult to distinguish (isn’t Côte d’Or in Burgundy, too?) because it was only shown in the second part of the tasting in the wines of Lar de Paula, a winery firmly in the modern Rioja camp, made using new French oak. 

4 Besos (Four Kisses) had a medium cherry color, showed acidic red fruit notes in the nose  that reminded me of cranberries.  It had lots of oak and high acidity on the palate.  

Lar de Paula reserva 2004 was dark ruby with both red and black fruit on the nose and lots of oak on the palate.  It was the wine I liked the least.

Merus tempranillo 2005 was the star of the tasting, showing an intense black cherry color but with  a fresh red fruit and toasted coffee bouquet.  It was long and elegant on the palate with soft tannins balancing the fruit. 

This tasting was not only fun but highly educational.  It proved to me that making barrels is not only an art but a science, too.