Barrel Basics 101

Barrel Basics 101

So you've decided that you want to handcraft your very own fortified wine. You're keen to get moving on the journey towards rich, luscious fortified on tap. But how do you begin? How do you get started? These are the usual thoughts that transpire in the minds of many eager and energetic home-barrel owners. Like most things, we must first learn before we jump into it with both feet.

At Stanton & Killeen, home barrel owners are some of our favourite customers. They're engaged, enthusiastic, passionate, and, like us, love a good chinwag over a glass (or two) of fortified wine. We have been handcrafting and barrel ageing fortified wine since 1875. Seven generations of fortified winemaking have positioned us as the experts in and a leading supplier of high-end home barrels, barrel accessories & blending fortified wines. We are passionate about fortified winemaking and all it entails, and we're excited when our customers share this passion.

Our desire to promote fortified winemaking and share our knowledge led us to launch a new initiative, Liquid Luxury by Stanton & Killeen. Liquid Luxury offers customers the opportunity to handcraft a unique fortified wine with ongoing support & education from one of the best in the business. Not only can our customers purchase high-end home barrels and fortified wine, but Liquid Luxury also offers several educational and support services, including our LiqLux Academy. The Liqlux Academy is a free resource of educational videos, articles and blog posts to assist customers on their journey through the world of home barrels and fortified wine.

Each quarter of 2023 we'll provide some helpful S&K home-barrel wisdom to guide you through the different stages of handcrafting the perfect fortified wine. Who knows, if you pay enough attention to these handy tricks and tips, you might even snag yourself a top gold medal or the best in show at the 2023 Liquid Luxury Amateur Fortified Wine Show.

Let's start with the basics.

The barrel. The most important part of this whole winemaking adventure. Look after your barrel and you're guaranteed excellent results.

When choosing a barrel that suits your winemaking needs, there are a few things to consider.The first thing you'll want to choose is your barrel size. At Liquid Luxury, we have two size options, 10L and 20L. If you're just a fortified sipper, the 10L could be your perfect size. A 10L barrel will allow you to maintain some complex, older material while adding freshness to your top-ups. We recommend that 10L barrel owners consume at most 2-4 litres a year.

Now, if you're more of a fortified slurper (we see you), the 20L size might be a better option. A 20L barrel will create a long-term, complex blend, as the more significant volume means you can consume 5-7 litres a year whilst still developing your wine. With a recommended turnover rate of 20-35% per year, a larger barrel enables you to have steady control of how your blend matures, albeit at a slower pace than the smaller barrels. This is because you keep your original material in the blend, forming the oldest and most complex component of your fortified wine over many years.

Secondly, you'll need to decide if you want a barrel made from ex-red wine barrels or old fortified casks. If you're looking at starting a new barrel, then ex-red wine barrel oak is perfect for ageing younger material, particularly younger tawny styles. While all our barrels are hot-washed and seasoned (see below if you need clarification on what this means) for a minimum of 3 months at the winery, some oak tannin may still be present. The oak tannin can compliment fruit-forward wines, and by regularly topping up and turning over your younger wine, everything will start to balance out. Once you're happy with the balance and flavours in your wine, it is time to begin the ageing process.

If you're looking to purchase a barrel for an existing wine or buy aged, fortified wine from the beginning, consider purchasing a barrel made from old, fortified oak. Old, fortified oak barrels have been seasoned for decades and will only have very little wood tannin present. These barrels are often at a higher price point depending on the age of the oak and their rarity.

The seasoning. Seasoning is essentially the "breaking in" of a new barrel to eliminate sharp oak tannins and to help preserve and enhance your fortified wine's natural flavour and character. A barrel that has yet to be seasoned will drastically change the taste of your wine. Young or unseasoned oak will produce intense woodchip, vanilla, coconut, smoke and spice flavours. While these flavours may sound delicious, they are not desirable in a fortified wine such as a Muscat, Topaque or Tawny. The seasoning process involves filling the barrel with a sacrificial wine and allowing it time to draw out and soak up these intense oak flavours. This wine is continuously drained from the barrel and replaced until the wine has a balanced and desirable taste and is ready for use. All barrels supplied by Stanton & Killeen have been seasoned for a minimum of three-six months and up to several years, meaning they are ready for immediate use. You will need to consider seasoning if purchasing a brand-new barrel from a supplier other than Stanton & Killeen.

Another alternative seasoning method is to 'turn the barrel'. If you only have a few litres of wine available for seasoning, we recommend this method; it may take a little longer but will have a similar outcome to the previous process. Add your wine to your new oak barrel. Every few days, turn the barrel a little on its cradle. When you're happy with your seasoning, you can either drain the initial wine out of your barrel or, if it's not too woody, keep it and top up the rest of the barrel with fresh wine.

Restoring an old barrel? Sometimes people will acquire old barrels that have been out of use. A barrel that has been dry for some time and is loose should be taken to a Cooper to "knock up"; If the barrel isn't in too bad shape, then you can use a hammer and blunt metal object to tighten the rings. After the barrel is tightened, you should do a hot water wash and swelling treatment before starting the barrel seasoning process. We'll discuss these two processes shortly.

If you have acquired a barrel with an unknown history, it is often best to empty the wine and give the barrel a hot water wash. You can then choose whether you start fresh with a new fortified wine or add the old contents back to the barrel and use it as your starting base. Suppose you need clarification on what the contents of your mystery barrel are. In that case, you can send a sample to the Stanton & Killeen winemaking team to analyse and provide a recommendation. You can download an analysis form from here.

A hot water wash involves filling and rinsing your barrel with hot water. Add hot water to your barrel (approx. 1/10 volume of your barrel). Swirl the water around your barrel for a few minutes ensuring the water touches all surface areas inside the barrel. Rinse and repeat three times or until the water runs clear if you find sediment and old wine is being dislodged in the process. After rinsing, fill your barrel with hot water so that the top and bottom interior surfaces are covered and soaked. Leave for at least 30 minutes.

After a hot wash, you must swell your barrel by filling it with cold water and leaving it for three days. During this time, check for slow leaks overnight. If the barrel leaks after the third day, replace the water and start again. After the sixth day, contacting a Cooper or barrel supplier is recommended to discuss your next steps.

Please note: If you have purchased your barrel directly from Stanton & Killeen, it is immediately ready for use. You do not need to season, hot wash or swell your barrel.

The fortified base. Once you've selected your perfectly seasoned home barrel, it is time to fill it with your fortified wine of choice. Stanton and Killeen offer a wide range of Muscat, Topaque, Tawny and White Fortifieds. If you need to figure out what variety you like best, you can purchase sample boxes from our Liquid Luxury by Stanton & Killeen website. These sample boxes will allow you to taste our full range of blending fortified wines to help with your decision.

So now your barrel is healthy, and in great shape, you've selected and filled your barrel with a fresh fortified blend. Now it's time to wait.

Handcrafting fortified wine takes patience and time. If these are two luxuries you do not have, we suggest stocking up on a few bottles of Stanton & Killeen Classic Muscat or Topaque to help with the temptation of taking a few too many nips from your new barrel. Trust us; your patience will be rewarded. Each day you leave your fortified wine ageing in your barrel, the more luscious and intense the flavours will become.

Let's check in again next quarter to discuss drawing down and freshening up your home blend. Until then, hands off! (with the exception of a few tiny sips to see how everything is ticking along, you're only human, after all!).

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1 comment

Your tasters advised me to add some sulphur tablets to my 20 litre barrel of muscat. How do I use the tablets? (direct in the barrel, or crushed, or disolved in a small amount of muscat and then added?

David Swan

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