The Life of a Wine Barrel
September 1st, 2012
Peggy Fiandaca

Far away in the thick forests of France, the journey to become Lawrence Dunham Vineyards wine barrels begins. Our new French Oak barrels that age our 2009 Grenache started in one of the five primary forests in France – Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais, or Vosges. These forests date back to the days of Napoleon and were used for shipbuilding.

In contrast, Lawrence Dunham Vineyards’ 2009 Petite Sirah is aged in new American Oak barrels from forests in Missouri.

Some wine aficionados say they can decipher the nuances between the forests.
   LDV Barrels

My palete is not that sensitive but I can tell the difference between a new French Oak and new American Oak barrel.

Besides the obvious geographic and cost differences, choosing the right barrel is an important winemaker decision. At Lawrence Dunham Vineyards it is all about creating the desired flavor profile and the decision to oak or un-oak plays a major role. Oak characteristics of the barrel impart a vanilla, spice, and sometimes buttery flavors in the finished wine.

Our French Oak barrel or actually the French Oak barrel staves are shipped to the cooperage in Missouri where the wine barrel is finished. It is cheaper to ship a deconstructed barrel then a completed barrel. Using traditional French barrel-making techniques the barrels are created. The partially assembled barrel undergoes a process called “toasting.” During this step, the barrel’s insides are charred to the winemaker’s specification – light toast, medium toast, or heavy toast.

Think about your breakfast toast and how the adjustments you make to your toaster change the taste of the toast. The toasting decision has an effect on the wine’s taste and aroma. For example, a medium or heavy toast barrel can mellow out the tannins of a big, bold Syrah.

Once the barrel is completed, they are wrapped and shipped via truck to our winery in Pearce, Arizona. Before arriving that oak has travelled approximately 5,000 miles before settling at Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. A new oak barrel is only new once. The toasting flavors diminish over time and after about three years basically become what is called a “neutral” barrel.

The Sky Island Grenache is aged in neutral barrels. These are ten year old Chardonnay barrels that are basically aging vessels and no longer impart any flavor into the finished wine. In the case of the Sky Island Grenache, we wanted to let the Grenache fruit flavors to shine through without any oak flavors.

 Decorated Barrel
  Once a barrel reaches its useful life as a wine aging vessel it becomes a table or planter at the winery.

Wine barrels are such an important part of the winemaking process.

Not only are they vessels to hold our precious juice as they magically mature into great wine, but they impart just the right amount of flavors to compliment the fruit.

More information about cooperage, or the hand crafting of barrels is available at the following links: