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Containers: From the Field to the Table

Originally Posted: December 06, 2004

Christopher Tracy

All through the wine-growing process, many different containers are used from field to table. Each stage of the winemaking process, from harvest through fermentation, maturation, transportation, service and consumption, is fundamentally associated with the container used during each process. As much as these varying containers have changed since pre-historic times, much remains the same, and many wine regions are characterized by the size, shape and materials used for their containers. A multitude of vessels from ancient to modern can still be found in use in the world's wine growing regions. They include baskets, animal skins, pottery, wood, concrete, glass, enamel, plastic and stainless steel.

At Channing Daughters, the first containers used are small plastic baskets in which 20-30 pounds of hand harvested fruit can be gently placed. These baskets are then stacked to avoid any pressure on the grapes. This is a very gentle, high quality approach. Baskets for harvest can be made of natural materials, like straw, as well. They can also be larger, but not likely much smaller. Bins holding one-half to one full ton of grapes can be used for their collection too. This is more likely for machine-harvested fruit, where quicker, higher volume collection demands a larger container. These bins are usually made of plastic. These bins are made the size of a standard wood pallet and are used up to twenty at a time on a 40-foot open tractor-trailer. Grapes can be harvested into even larger mobile containers like gondolas or trucks carrying 5-10 tons.

When the fruit arrives at the winery, the color of the grapes often determines the kind of container that is used next. At Channing Daughters, we whole-cluster press all our white fruit. So the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai Friulano and the like will immediately be placed in the press from the small plastic picking baskets and the juice liberated. This juice will flow directly into a stainless steel tank that may or may not be temperature controlled, and allowed to settle for 1-3 days. After this time the juice will be racked off its gross solids and put into a fermentation vessel. For us, this may take the form of a stainless steel tank, a stainless steel barrel, or oak barrel. These tanks or barrels come in a variety of sizes and shapes.

If the fruit were red, the grapes would be put through a de-stemmer and possibly a crusher before being put into a container to ferment. We like to ferment all our red fruit in small square bins that are lined with plastic and hold about 0.8 tons of de-stemmed fruit. Red fruit can be fermented in many types of containers; from plastic tubs to wood or steel tanks or vats made of concrete and possibly lined with enamel. Obviously the choice of container for fermentation, from the size, shape and proportions to the material from which it was fabricated, plays a profound role in the style of the wine. If you were to imagine taking a bath in a container made of oak, or stainless steel, or concrete, or enamel, you will get an idea of the feeling the wine might have after an upbringing in such a container. Many of these containers are used for maturation as well as fermentation.

This seems an appropriate place to discuss the subject of oak as a material for containers in the winemaking process. In the past other types of wood such as redwood and cherry, have been used, but today one mostly encounters oak. There are many choices when one uses oak. The first decision to be made is the size of the container. The traditional barrel or barrique is 225 to 228 liters. These are smaller barrels, but larger ones with funny names like the 300-liter Hogshead and 500 liter Puncheons are also useful. There are foudres, vats and tanks of varying sizes, all made from oak. The next important question is where the oak originates. Is it French, American, Hungarian, Russian or Slovenian? All these oak sources have different flavor profiles caused not only by nature of oak from the country, but also the region or the individual forest itself. The oak may be from the center of France or more specifically from a named forest like Allier, Never, Troncais or Bertrange, to name a few. Wood grain tightness has great importance and all the regions and forests have their own wood grain characteristics. Other considerations include how the staves are bent (by water or by fire), and the toast level of the barrel (light, medium or heavy). Even the treatment of the barrelheads make a difference in flavor and aroma profile. So you can begin to imagine all the different considerations and choices we must make when we put juice or wine into an oak container. Now that we have touched on the different containers in the process of winemaking and we have wines that have been blended in these various barrels or tanks and are ready to put into the bottle, we face another decision about a type of container. The glass bottle has been with us in the wine world since the late 1600's. Nowadays there is a plethora of choices. Not only is size an issue but also color, weight, shape and the size of the punt all make statements. If you put one of your wines in a simple, lightweight, green glass bottle with no punt, and another wine in fancy Italian glass with a special color that may weigh over 2 pounds with a punt you can fit your fist in, you are clearly creating a message about the style, weight and intended experience of the wine. The simpler bottle may represent a more straightforward wine at a lower price point intended for everyday consumption. Whereas the other model may suggest weight and complexity, or cost, or rarity and the special occasions for which they may be intended. Having the bottle on the table now presents us with the choice for our wine's final container, the glass.

The subject of glassware has become quite extraordinary. Companies like Riedel and Spiegelau are fabricating glass shapes for every specific wine type and grape variety to enhance aromatic and flavor enjoyment and even direct the wine to the most appropriate place on the tongue. This has become a complex science. The difference in tasting wine from an everyday industrial wine glass that costs under a dollar and can be dropped on the floor without breaking - to the hand blown work of art that costs upwards of $100 a stem and is as delicate as a flower, is dramatic. Next time you open a bottle of Channing Daughters wine, conduct a little experiment. Pull out a half dozen glasses - a water glass, a cheap wine glass, a nice wine glass, a mug, a pint glass, a tumbler or a high ball, pour the wine in all the different shapes and smell and taste each one. You will be shocked at the differentiation and will begin to understand immediately the role a glass can play.

While a thesis could be written about the containers involved in the winemaking process, we hope to have given you a glimpse of the effects the choice of a particular container may have. As we near the end of our 2004 harvest, we have tested the capacity of our building and all the containers in and around it. We will grow slightly in size this year and our preoccupation with our containers and how best to use them logistically and creatively has been a wonderful challenge.

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