Uncorking Wine Aging: A Barrel Story, by Sarah Johnson
Growing up in a family business is the most uncomfortable beneficial experience you can have. My grandfather, Lloyd Walker, planted one of the first vineyards in the county back in 1972, and as a child I spent every summer, school break, and plenty of weekends dragging myself through the uncountable rows of that vineyard. I hated working outside in the blistering summers and frostbitten winters while my friends lounged in their houses. From the time I was eight to the vine ripened age of eighteen I was expected to do manual labor with joy, a feat I was (and admittedly still am) unable to achieve. Once I turned eighteen and moved out for college, I hid my work boots and fled to Oregon where I would be safe from the choking tendrils of the family business.
I was not alone in feeling this way. I found out later that my mother, who is now a partner at Walker Vineyard with my grandfather, ran away from the family business to the coast for college to find her true identity. Another runaway was Justin Boeger, the son of one of the first winemakers in El Dorado County, and a business partner of my grandfather, Greg Boeger. He packed up and flew to Germany, leaving family expectations behind to backpack through foreign landscapes. In the words of my mother, “you have to leave the farm to want to come back”, and sure enough we all did. She returned to Walker Vineyard in 2006 to become a partner in the business. Justin found his passion rekindled after working at several wineries in Germany and headed back to Boeger Winery. They now work together to continue the business partnership their fathers established forty-five years ago. I am now an aspiring food writer with a goal to make the expertise of small business owners, producers, and farmers known and valued. I want to pay homage to where I came from, so I went to talk to Justin.
With a background in the agricultural side of wine but no experience with winemaking, I began to wonder where the variety of flavors in wine come from. While fermentation converts grape juice to alcohol in winemaking, the flavors and aromas are primarily developed through the barrel aging process. There are several types of barrels used to age wine, but here are some basic definitions to get you started: (to learn more about the types and elements of barrels reference LEAFtv)
- Barrel styles: Bordeaux are more compact and hold slightly less wine, and Burgundy which are slightly larger and bulkier and hold a little under one gallon more wine.
- Barrel materials: American Oaks from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, and French Oak.
- Barrel age: neutral barrels which have been aged for at least five years and give wines a subtle oak flavor, and new barrels are in their first use and give off more oak flavor.
I spoke to now head winemaker Justin Boeger to get an insider’s perspective on barrel aging and its effects. Justin took over as head winemaker in 2013 from his father Greg Boeger who started the winery back in 1972. I knew that most winemakers use oak barrels as other woods don’t compliment wine well during aging, but was curious to see which barrels Justin used. I learned that American oak is primarily used for his barrels at Boeger Winery, with very few French oak barrels. This, Justin told me, was due mainly to import costs. Without much better flavor being imparted from the French barrels when compared to the American, he chooses the lower priced barrel to keep the prices of his wines reasonable for buyers. That is the small business way. However, not only the type but also the age of the barrel is vital to the aging process and the development of the wine’s taste and aroma. When asked about his favorite age for oak he responded:
“Many wines use almost exclusively neutral (i.e. – older than 5 years old) barrels. The reason being, we have over 30 grape varieties, so if they all have a predominant character of ‘oak’, then they all taste the same.”
In addition to the variety and age of the oak barrels, regional differences dictate mouthfeel and many other aspects of the finished wine. Typically oak barrels are sourced from America, France, and Eastern Europe. Boeger Winery sources 95% of its barrels from America and just 5% from France. He commented that he prefers French oak for white wines as it has a more subtle effect on the wine as it ages. American oak can be further regionalized into Pennsylvania and Virginia oaks that provide softer oak flavor, and Missouri and Minnesota oaks that provide “rougher” and stronger oak impact. But how is a strong oak impact marketable for the modern drinker’s palate? According to Justin,
“Proper aging allows those initial ‘rough’ characters to integrate in the wine and become seamless. The real problem with over-use of oak is in our current market trend of ‘quick-to-market’. Wineries are under a lot of pressure to turn over product quickly, and that can lead to rough oak profiles in new releases if the winery isn’t careful.”
Knowing which types of wine to age in which type of oak is where Justin shines as a winemaker. The body of the wine and the natural tannin content of each varietal dictates which barrel is best for aging. For the wine profiled below, a Petite Sirah from my family’s own grapes, he explained:
“The Walker Petite is probably one of the most darkly-colored and tannic wines I make – it makes it a wonderful complement to our Petite which is unusually soft. But in a tannic wine like Petite, I have to be really careful not to add too much in the form of oak tannins, so your family’s Petite generally receives no new oak, and only older barrels.”
Barrels impart flavor and aroma on the wine as they age. The larger the barrel the less oak flavor is absorbed, but the aging process also takes longer. At Boeger Winery the ideal turnaround for wine is a year to a year and a half, so Justin prefers the smaller Bordeaux barrels for aging. Oak barrels also go through a toasting process that brings notes of vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch out in the wines. The lighter the toast the more subtle the sweet and cooked aroma will be. Wine aromas have impressive range, and a single wine can have many unique aromas as the infographic below illustrates.
After grape harvest ends in September, Justin Boeger must have plenty of patience as he waits for the wines to age to their “sweet spots.” The aging time varies not only between red and white wines, but also between varieties.
“Our whites are generally turned around and bottled as quickly as possible. The one exception is Chardonnay which we do age in a tank, with its lees and with oak staves. We generally release Chardonnay in May… I find the sweet spot for most [red] wines to be in the range of 12-18 months of barrel time.”
Overall the success of wine aging is left in the often wine-stained hands of its maker. If Boeger Winery’s numerous awards don’t assert Justin’s expertise, his philosophy on wine will leave you sprinting to the California foothills for a taste.
“I believe the variety should speak through, so oak is always just a subtle background component for me in wines that benefit from it.”
Whether following directly in the footsteps of the generation before you like my mother, reinventing the business like Justin with his expertly trained hands, or integrating it into your other passions as I have, the family business will always be there for you to fall back on. But, in the end we all embrace it in our own way. We find ourselves as we look back at where we came from and realizing that it may not all have been a glass of wine, but it wasn’t half bad.
Footnote: You can buy Boeger Wines from their website, if you choose a Walker Zinfandel you will be drinking wine from grapes the author herself picked.