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Barrels make good servants but poor masters. Several times over the last ten years of winemaking, the size and availability of barrels influenced my winemaking decisions. When I empty a barrel, I rinse it and fill it with a new batch of wine. I make extra just to make sure there isn't an empty barrel. Not everyone I know agrees. Wayne is one of the best home winemakers I know. He and I met with a group of Old World style winemakers and one of them advised his colleagues to empty the barrel after bottling the wine and then let it dry until the next harvest. Wayne and I were horrified. Half a world away, we traveled with our wives to Panzano in Tuscany and heard a world class winemaker describe how he empties the wine from the barrel in mid-winter, rinses and partially dries the barrel and puts the Chianti Classico back into the same barrel. (Wayne looked pleased.) I love the concentrating effect and the flavor notes that oak barrels bring to wine. When they get old enough, I add oak chips to replace the flavor that has faded. We've had good results cleaning out used distillery barrels that can emerge from the barrel cleaning with muted flavors but still valuable for the concentrating effect. I used to park barrels with water to which I added meta, but on one occasion found that it was difficult to control the amount of sulfite that wound up in the wine even after rinsing. I like to give malolactic fermentation plenty of time to complete. Replacing barrels every few years makes sense. The photo that accompanies this post features Ken Macintosh next to a Pommery champagne barrel in Reims, France. The barrel may be the largest champagne barrel in the world and it was crafted in 1903! Comments are certainly welcome either here or on Twitter as @Garagist
Don’t be discouraged by a bad batch of wine. As an amateur winemaker, I may have learned more from my mistakes than from my successes. My first wine was from juice fermented in the same 6-gallon bucket it came in. A little yeast, a new lid with an airlock and winemaking was underway. It was palatable and red and dry and alcoholic but not outstanding. Then I discovered that the local Homebrew Emporium carried Winexpert kits that made a very drinkable Chardonnay and it extended my winemaking season to year-round. One batch of Sangiovese made with juice and grocery store grapes won a gold medal in a Winemaker Magazine competition and a Chardonnay won a local competition and I was convinced I could make wine. I got pretty good at two complementary tasks: blending wines to make a really good beverage and diagnosing wine faults. Both skills resulted from producing wines that needed a little help. I’ve had to deal with over and under-sulfited wines, vinegar bacteria, hydrogen sulfide, corked wine and color fading. Some we win. Some we don’t. As blending goes, we typically get grapes from California in the fall (like half a ton) and lesser amounts in late May from the Southern Hemisphere. Lately, I’ve discovered that blending a tannic wine like Carnellian with a Malbec or Carmenere that may still have a little “green pepper” quality to it can produce a good balanced wine that would normally not be found in nature. @Garagist
Once you're comfortable with your ability as a home winemaker, consider contacting wineries and tasting rooms before you visit. Nobody appreciates how much effort winemaking can be more than another winemaker. If they know you'll be coming, you may get tours, barrel tastings and offers not available to tourists. In return, the commercial vintner gets a knowledgeable customer who can talk the language. A year or so ago, a winemaker in Paso Robles invited a couple of us to go behind the tasting room to give our opinion of his still barreled syrah. I've had tasting room people pass the money back across the counter saying "We don't charge winemakers." We've been invited to trade tastings. If you get something free, enjoy the feeling but if it's allowed tip generously and be sure to buy some wine.