Case study: Napa Valley

Wayne Donaldson - Donaldson Wines, Napa Valley, USA

Red wine fermentation and maturation in next generation barrels (cube + BarriQ) vs traditional barrels.

Varietal: Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Year: 2015
Cube permeability: Medium and high permeability
Cube sizes: 1,000 litres/10 hl/ 265gal
Oak used: BarriQ French Classic Barrel-Blend with untoasted head, 100% new barrel equivalent
Traditional barrels used: Baron, Saury, Nadalie and Oak Masters Selection


What are you trying to achieve?
“We wanted to compare traditional barrels vs Flexcube’s next generation barrels like for like. That means that we had to use cubes with a 100% barrel equivalent amount of BarriQ oak. So for a 256 Gal (1,000 L /10 HL) cube that was 16.5 kg of BarriQ oak.”

What process did you use?
“The pressed wine went into barrel and cube at the same time to do malo there. The cubes were set up at 100% new barrel equivalent
with BarriQ. The barrels I used were some Baron, Saury, Nadalie, Oak Masters Selection. Once through malo, the wine was racked, SO2
added and put back to barrel and cube. Each barrel and cube was treated in parallel.

I gave it one racking. We started using medium permeability cubes. It is understanding your wine style and then adapting as you go
along. We are now tending to switch a little more to high permeability cubes with Napa Cabernet as it has a greater tannic intensity. One of the great things with Flexcube is you have that flexibility. If you want to hold your wine a little tighter in a reductive phase you can and then you can move to a more elevated maturation in a high permeability cube later on.”

What were your main observations?
“Speed of ferment between barrel and cube was the same, both completed ferment at the same time. For SO2 the key is the total
amount and the barrels ended with higher total SO2 which shows me we are adding more SO2 to barrels than cubes.

Topping volumes for Flexcube (after the first 3 months stretch period) are less. I definitely top more with barrels than cubes. With barrels temperature and humidity is important but with cubes the humidity is not as important, you don’t have to run a cellar as humid with cubes as you do with barrels.

I see barrels giving up their oak quicker than BarriQ. That is quite obvious [sensorially], but I look at total integration over time. I am
talking about wines I want in barrel for 2 years before bottling. BarriQ oak is elegant, structuring and flavourful. At the final sensory assessment, the barrels and cubes ran parallel. I do really believe the Flexcube’s next generation barrels are comparable to new traditional barrels. I’d feel completely confident using cube and BarriQ on even the highest price point wine.”

What have you found are the key points of using Flexcube’s next generation barrels?
“When I think about the Flexcube concept and its relationship to barrels, Flexcube is essentially deconstructing what a traditional
barrel does and reconstructing in a form that is much more flexible, much more adaptive and much more agile when it comes to the
winemaking process.

If you can achieve the same result but with a cost effective system, you’ve got a win. It has been proven the cube works. It is permeable, it is inert, it is functional but the secret to achieving a successful result, the important element, is barrel quality oak. It all hinges around the quality of the oak and the proof is in the pudding. Every time I taste the BarriQ oak - my 2015 Syrah today that has BarriQ Troncais oak - it is just exquisite, integrated and elegant.

With Flexcube you get much more efficient use of your oak and your environmental footprint is greatly reduced! There is a real
advantage here. Barrels are beautiful pieces of furniture, exceptionally useful but have inherent problems.
The challenge that a lot of winemakers have is the thought that anything other than a barrel is not barrel quality. Up until now we haven’t had superior quality oak in non-barrel form but today we have BarriQ and when paired up with a cube, well…we have a barrel replica.

The kinetics of oak extraction into wine is woefully misunderstood, even with barrel users. We tend to think a barrel is traditional, we like it, we love it, we think it is perfect but in many ways it is not. There is a lot of marketing romance and operational convention around barrels, barrel washing systems, racks, etc. I can see that if I have four coopers in my program, then Flexcube is happily, happily one of them.

The great thing is the price you know, when you look at the qualitative results the impact per $/gallon is hard to ignore. I can see
cubes continue to become a more significant part of my winemaking process, without a doubt. I have my marketing demands and my
winemaking operating convention restraints but for the $ per gallon for oak maturation, Flexcube kills it. The lower $/gallon of warehouse space is really significant. Storage $/gallon for cube is effectively a quarter. All the ‘touches’ are the same in term of cost. Whether you touch a barrel or a cube, they are the same but when you touch one cube you touch four barrels. 

Cubes handle the same as barrels but in answering this we are making the assumption that all barrels and coopers are the same and they are not. There are enormous variabilities in barrels, enormous. We have better control with cube and BarriQ in terms of the variability. Cooper to cooper varies and year to year varies. BarriQ oak has been extraordinarily consistent. The consistency of porosity and speed of evolution, that is the consistency we control.”