Wine Barrel Debate

The great wine barrel conflict is coming up in my mind again.  I have toyed with the idea of getting a barrel for a few years and I always find a reason to not get one.  Although I am getting closer, I still have a couple reasons to pause.
                The first reason is size.  Everyone always tells me that bigger is better and that I should buy a barrel under 25 gallons.  The reason is simply the surface to volume ratio.  I know other people who have very small barrels (8-13 gallon) and it is very easy to overoak a wine in them.  Of course, overoaking can happen in a 60 gallon barrel as well, but it takes a lot longer.  So, with this size of barrel comes the obvious problem of how to fill it.  This means I would have to make at least 30 gallons (to account for the angel’s share) of a wine and then put it in the barrel.  This is 500-600 lbs of grapes.  I do make a Cab Franc Merlot blend that is in total 500 lbs, but this means I would have to blend it before it went in the barrel.  Also, Cab franc and Merlot do not take oak as well as Cab Sauv, so I’d be hesitant to leave it in for a long time.  This means I might have the barrel empty, which I don’t want to do.  So, I'm thinking about making a batch of Cab Sauv to be the first rotation through the barrel.  However, this would mean making 500-600 lbs of Cab Sauv, which is a lot.  So, that alone is giving me pause.
                The second thing is the moisture content in my wine making area.  This is my basement. It has a poured concrete foundation and is mostly underground, but it gets very dry in the winter (as do most places in New England).  This might cause a problem with the barrel shrinking.  Although I have not heard of anyone having a problem with a full barrel, I’m not sure I want to take the chance.  Not only am I worried about the lack of moisture, I am concerned with the abundance of moisture in the summer.  I am concerned about mold that may form on the outside of the barrel.  This happens a little bit on the bottles in my cellar, so I’m not sure what will happen to the barrel.  Once again, another reason for pause.


 Optimalo is a nutrient from Scott Laboratories that is indicated to increase the success of Malolactic fermentation.  My success with it has been somewhat spotty, as I have not found any difference between the performance of MLF with or without Optimalo.

                In 2011, I did not use any Optimalo on my red wines and MLF went through fine.  These wines were not too acidic and had low alcohol, so I was never concerned about the MLF.  I used VP 31 and the things sailed through MLF.  I keep a constant temperature around 70 during MLF, so I figured this was what was keeping things going.  In 2012, my Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon came in with a low pH of 3.2 and it really struggled to get MLF going.  So, on the advice of a friend, I order some Optimalo and tried it.  I mixed it according to the directions and added to the wine prior to the VP31 (which would be a second addition of VP31). I checked the wine 1 month later and no additional movement had occurred (by MLF chromatography).   I decided to simply add in a whole packet of VP31 (using a 66 gallon dose for 6 gallons), and it rocketed to completion in 3 weeks.  On that basis, I can say that the Optimalo didn’t really make a difference.

                In my 2012 wines (Rhode Island and Las Amigas), I also used the Optimalo (because I had it).  I saw no appreciable difference in the rate of completion in the same grapes from last year.  The MLF still completed at about the same schedule and with no difficulty.  I just didn’t see that this stuff makes any difference.  Anyway, I know people who swear by it, so this is just my experience.

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