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Rolling reds: why a few winemakers barrel ferment despite the cost and labor.

In a seemingly endless world of winemaking techniques and trends, the small but growing cadre of producers who have begun to use manually operated rotary red wine fermentation barrels swear by them.

Possibly as few as 20 winemakers are using these "rack and roll" vessels (shown below at Vineyard 29), as some call them, but that number apparently is trending upward. Advocates say these fermenters enhance elegance and sweetness in the tannins, give more texture and more mid-palate richness, and help to better integrate oak flavors. Additionally, the "roll fermenters," as others call them, allow the winemaker to complete the entire vinification process, as well as the maturing of the wine, in a single vessel.

The other side of the story is that everyone Wines & Vines spoke to for this report who employs rack and roll barrels says they should only be used for small production--they are both costly and very labor intensive.

Tom Rinaldi, the winemaker for Provenance Vineyards in the Napa Valley, is a recent convert to the rotary red wine fermentation barrels. But he cautions, "I wish they were a failure, because they're just a nuisance. It's retro thinking, in a way. Some of the more sensitive grapes will get overwhelmed and slaughtered by the wood. It's the gnarly grapes that benefit."

Nonetheless, Rinaldi will be putting through about 2% to 4% of his production for the first time with the 2008 vintage. He'll only be filling 60-gallon barrels with Petit Verdot, which he refers to as "gnarly" because it's "such a brutal grape, and we have such a hard time taming it."

With few exceptions, those who use these barrels, which range in size from 225L to 400L, as well as 450-9001. puncheons, utilize them for blending purposes--or micro-cuvees--mostly fermenting Cabernet. Pinot Noir seems to be too sensitive, as Rinaldi implies, but heartier varietals such as Syrah and Petite Sirah are garnering some attention.

"It's incorporated into our production. They are not (for) stand-alone (wines), but it would go into our top-tier wine," says Peter Heitz, the winemaker at Napa Valley's Turnbull Cellars. "The barrels don't have enough capacity to make wine by itself...but they are a wonderful tool."

Wonderful, he believes, not for people who are looking for "more Parkeresque wines, (but) these are prettier, more interesting and nuanced wines."

The roll fermenters sit on specially designed racks that have rubberized wheels for manual rotation. The protocols in many facilities with which we spoke include revolving the barrels by hand anywhere from three to 10 times per day at the height of fermentation, in order to incorporate the skins and the cap.

The barrels from coopers such as Vernou, Sylvain, Baron, Demptos, Seguin Moreau and Radoux, range in price from $1,000 to $1,200 for the 60-gallon barrels--the two-barrel racks run about $850-and are fitted with specially made wide stainless bung holes with shoots for filling the crushed grapes.

While the trend toward these barrels seems on the uptick, Camille Poupon, a spokesperson for Tonnellerie Sylvain, one of the cooperages that makes these barrels, cautions that the weak dollar will play a part in determining if more wineries will buy them in the immediate future.

"It's quite true (there was an increase in the use of roll fermenters) at the beginning of the 2000s, especially for the 2000 campaign. (However) from 2005-06, there is a little stagnancy, but it still depends on the export country. We guess this is a question of prices and the quality of vintages. We can say that is still a growth market, but it will depend, of course, on the raw material (if) prices increase little by little year after year."

As for the racks with composite wheels, says Trygve Mikkelsen of manufacturer Western Square Industries in Stockton, Calif., which makes two types: "These products arc only three years yes, the sales are growing fast."

Western Square representative Mark Canepa adds, regarding sales of the Barrel Masters line that holds 225-450L barrels, "We've seen a 1,000% increase over the last three years." For the larger size models, there's a 300% sales increase.

One of the early proponents of these red barrel-fermenters is Philippe Melka, who consults for a number of wineries in Sonoma and Napa, Calif. Influenced by garagistes in Bordeaux, Melka began using them as early as 2001 or 2002, when he was consulting for Caldwell. He currently employs the fermenters for clients such as Flanagan in Sonoma; Dana Estates, Vineyard 29 and Marston in the Napa Valley, the latter of which uses them for 50-75% of its 600-case production. He also utilizes them "in specific lots" for his own brand, Melka Wines.

"We like them, but there are pros and cons," he says. "Contrary to what we think, the oak integration is much better for the long run, because we use the same barrels we use to age the wine. (The wines) are much smoother and better.

"What I like also is that I do not use any yeast fermentation, only natural yeast from the vineyard, and I don't use any chemicals. I try to reproduce the site. It's a very good technique to be able to do that. It's the most natural fermentation."

When he uses the 60-gallon barrels, the fermentation is at a lower temperature (from 70-74[degrees]F), which makes for a soft extraction. When using the 400L rotary fermenters, these "give us a stronger, dynamic fermentation, when we want to extract more and ferment at higher temperatures (75-78[degrees]F)."

It should be noted that some winemakers using these fermenters drop inert dry ice pellets into the barrel to decrease temperatures to the 40[degrees]s and low 50[degrees]sF; and once the temperature reaches 55[degrees]F, they inoculate with yeast. When using these barrels, many winemakers inoculate with malolactic culture at about 65degrees]F after pressing.

The downside to using these barrels, according to Melka, echoing a common concern, is that they are "very labor intensive. It's more adaptive for small lots for small wineries, because 1 ton represents five barrels. So, it's five different containers to fill up, and it's very slow--1 ton per hour, and removing the pomace takes a very long time."

Turnbull Cellars' Heitz adds, "The end result is very good. (But) the hassle of emptying them, the extra work, and to take our entire 25,000-case production would be very expensive and greatly increase the labor cost. I don't see us expanding the program."

Julia Vasquez, the winemaker for De-Loach Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Calif., concurs. "They're very heavy and difficult to rotate, and they could be a real challenge when full," she says. "The purpose is to roll it for a gentler technique, (but) I can hardly turn it when it's empty. It'll take a couple of strong guys."

Regardless, Vasquez says she may use the barrels for the upcoming crush, "If we have some time."

Peter Heitz summarizes why he uses roll fermenters: "I like trying new things. If you're static, then you essentially are missing some great possibilities."

Melka says that using this technique is "a noble way to ferment grapes, a sophisticated way. It has the notion of nobility."


* Rotary red wine fermentation barrels are gaining popularity with winemakers who say they add elegance and texture.

* The barrels require manual rotation up to 10 times per day during the height of fermentation, making them a cumbersome option for large-production wineries.

* Some winemakers use inert dry ice pellets to control temperature within the rotary barrels.

RELATED ARTICLE: New tradition for Petite Sirah

One winemaker who takes the time to make red wine in roll fermenters is Adam Richardson, who has been fermenting Concannon's (Livermore, Calif.) Petite Sirah for the last three vintages in 65-gallon rotary barrels.

His barrels have a submarine batch with an air vent and a handbrake to stop the rotation after the barrel "spins" 360[degrees] (which serves to break the cap). During the first part of fermentation, the barrel is rotated as many as four times per day; when fermentation slows down, rotations are reduced to once per day.

Richardson's Petite Sirahs fermented in these barrels have their fruit flavors elevated, and the wine is complex but soft. "I tried it on Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot, but Petite Sirah performs best," he says. "Petite Sirah has a good, natural tannin profile, which matches the oak flavor. The fermenting characteristics are quite mild. It's easy to control." A.G.

Alan Goldfarb is a correspondent for, and was previously wine editor for the Napa Valley's St. Helena Star and a contributing writer for Decanter magazine. To comment on this article, e-mail edit@
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Title Annotation:WINEMAKING
Comment:Rolling reds: why a few winemakers barrel ferment despite the cost and labor.(WINEMAKING)
Author:Goldfarb, Alan
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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