[By Richard Sheppard in Geyserville, California] I recently contacted my long time friend Arminée Chahbazian with questions regarding how oak influences wine and we agreed to meet for lunch at Jimtown Store to discuss the subject. Arminée happens to be the only American sales representative for Bordeaux-based cooperage Tonnellerie Bel Air.
The Alexander Valley’s Jimtown Store is a short drive northeast of Healdsburg. Jim Patrick founded Jimtown back in 1895 as a general store and post office, and it’s been a popular gathering spot for locals and travelers ever since. Current owner Carrie Brown and her late husband John Werner refurbished the store in 1991.
To get there, I drive down Alexander Valley Road between tree and shrub covered hills, over a Russian River truss bridge, and through a sea of Cabernet vines. I pull into the gravel parking lot of Jimtown and park next to the store’s mascot, a 1955 red Ford pickup, originally a county fire truck.
Just inside, I find Arminée browsing the deli counter. We order from a chalkboard menu, then make our way to a wooden table surrounded by antiques and hand made goods.
Over a vegetable caponata appetizer, I ask Arminée what’s new, and she talks about how busy she's been lately selling barrels.
|Arminée Chahbazian, the only American sales representative for Bordeaux-based cooperage Tonnellerie Bel Air.|
“I spent the last few months following up with existing clients and looking for new business. These days I’m traveling up and down the coast from Seattle to L.A., working directly with winemakers to taste from barrels, helping assess and advise, and taking a lot of orders.”
“I’m especially curious about how oak influences wine,” I tell her. “Doesn’t Bel Air use French oak exclusively?”
“Yes, but we don’t sell pre-made barrels. We work directly with wineries to custom design for them. We start with a test barrel filled with the winery’s newly fermented wine and store it up for up to three years, depending on the varietal.”
Three years. So that explains why the latest vintage of some red wines is pretty far from current. During this time, Arminée tastes the wine to determine how it’s aging, until the barrel influence feels perfectly integrated. The success of witnessing two natural products, grapes and oak, merging beautifully into a complete whole, is one of the most gratifying parts of her job.
“In France,” she says, “French oak is primarily used, but here in the States, it’s American and French. American oak is harvested in Virginia and Missouri and shipped to cooperages around the U.S. French oak trees are harvested predominantly in the central region of France and are 200 to 250 years old.
|Anatomy of an oak barrel|
“The French mastered the art of barrel making centuries ago, and the process hasn’t changed much since. The government manages the forests, each year selecting mature trees to measure and value for grain profile and density, then selling to the highest bidder. Once milled, the trees are air dried for two to three years before use. If they’re not dry enough, the wine tastes too green. Most coopers craft barrels from a single forest, but at Bel Air, wood from multiple forests is crafted into a single, customized barrel.”
After our server sets down Arminée’s Reuben sandwich along with my bowl of black-eyed pea soup, I ask how oak contributes to the character of a wine.
She talks about oak adding structure, fullness, balance. Well over 35 French forests are harvested, each imparting a particular nuance. The term “terroir” is referred to in grape growing as the character of the land and its relationship to flavor. In the oak forest, terroir is also very much at play.
“Terroir influenced oak can be described as spicy, nutty, sweet, mineral, and/or vanilla,” Arminée says. “Oak adds volume by fattening up the wine, adding mouth feel, and lengthening the finish. It also adds structure and substance. Wine without oak tends to taste thin and watery.
“Seasoning, or toasting, a barrel helps extract the wood’s natural flavors and aromas. A controlled fire is lit inside the new barrel for a specified time, depending on the amount of toast desired. This toasting process caramelizes the wood’s natural sugars, similar to crème brûlée. Poorly seasoned oak can taste pungent and resinous.
“Oak adds tannins can be aggressive, delicate, soft, or pretty. But ultimately, oak tannins are harmonized and balanced with the tannins of the wine. The barrel’s job is to support the wine in a beautiful way.”
It’s starting to become clear how vital oak is to wine. Our conversation winds down as we finish our lunch.
“We’re meeting at the perfect time, Arminée,” I tell her. “This afternoon I’m heading out to Robert Rue Winery to discover for myself what you’re describing.”
|Robert Rue Winery located in Fulton California|
After our goodbyes, I head over to the Winery located just outside of Fulton. There I find Dan Barwick, Rue’s winemaker since 2008, doling out samples to a group of tasters.
|Dan Barwick pouring wine out of a barrel|
I watch Dan empty a sample of Zinfandel into my glass. He says it’s been French-oak aged for under three months. Aromas of bright plum and blackberry dominate, with little evidence of the oak barrel. The fruit flavors are so fresh, it’s as though plum and blackberry juices had been squeezed directly into the young wine, but of course that’s not how it’s done.
|Robert Rue, the winery's owner|
I ask Dan if it’s possible to compare this barrel sample with a finished wine. From the tasting room, Dan pulls out two Zinfandels, a 2007 and 2008. He pours me one of each for a comparison tasting. Where the barrel sample is loaded with fresh, mouthwatering fruit and little oak, the two finished wines both feel fuller on my palate, with plenty of fruit still in evidence. And there are those nuances Arminée talked about. In addition to fruit, there’s spice, a touch of vanilla and rich oak in the 2007 vintage, while the 2008 imparts a velvety chocolate feel. And, of course, the aged wines have more body in the mouth. But I imagine that this young aging wine will mature with complexity as it fills out in the barrel.
|An old bottling machine|
As he pours another sample, my eyes lock on to the insignia printed on the barrel behind him: Tonnellerie Bel Air. Ha! I had no idea Arminée sold barrels to Robert Rue but what a great surprise. And my exploration of wine and oak comes full circle.
|Old barn and truck located on the Rue property.|