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barrel aging, italian style!
from soil and climate to barrels and puncheons

by Penny Popken of Viansa Winery
(return to wine)

It�s no secret that Viansa produces a greater range of Italian varietals than any other winery in the world � including Italy. You see, Italian wineries tend to limit themselves to producing only wines that are native to their particular region. Viansa, on the other hand, has no limits.

The soil on our hilltop, for instance, is nearly identical to that of Tuscany, so we are able to grow Tuscan varietals under conditions that are extremely similar to their native land. Our Alba Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain experiences the same morning sun and persistent fog that is common in Alba, Italy, so varietals such as Nebbiolo thrive on Sonoma Mountain. It doesn�t hurt that the soil in our vineyard is very similar to that in Alba.

It's not just the barrel it's what you do with it
To further increase the authenticity of our Italian varietals, we began importing Gamba barrels from Italy several years ago. We are now the biggest importer of Gamba barrels in the United States, with more than 100 in our cellar. Some of these barrels are standard-sized, while others are puncheons, which hold twice as much wine as a standard barrel, enabling wines to age very slowly.

Whatever the size, we insist on barrels crafted from oak with a very tight grain and small pore size. This allows us to age our wines longer without picking up the excessive oak character that we feels detracts from a wine. We also work closely with the barrel producer to oversee the toasting of the inner surface of each barrel so that it is produced according to our exact specifications.

Why all this fuss over what might seem at first glance to be a simple oak barrel? Well, barrel aging is an integral part of the process of producing a fine wine. While there are quick ways one could add oak nuances to a wine � using oak chips or adding oak extract � these methods produce one-dimensional oak flavors. It�s sort of like the difference between sprinkling a ham with smoke extract versus smoking the ham for several weeks. The longer it takes to infuse the flavor, the better the final result.

Ins and outs of barrel aging
Here�s how the process of barrel aging works: Alcohol is a solvent, so as the wood tannins of the barrel are dissolved by the alcohol they move into the wine. The wine closest to the surface of the barrel becomes heavier, and it falls away, creating a stirring effect in the wine. Equally significant is that the cellular structure of the wood contains oxygen, so there is a minute but measurable uptake of oxygen during the aging process. You can�t mimic this complex process by pouring oak flavoring into a wine.

related items

The Regional Wines of Italy

The Italian Wine Guide

more books...

Back in the 1980s, I conducted an experiment to check the differences between different barrels. I imported barrels from every fine barrel maker in France, and aged the same wine in each of them. The results were dramatic: Some wine had too much oak flavor, some had to little and still others exuded sweetness. If I had ever doubted the importance of selecting a particular barrel to suit a particular type of wine, this experience certainly convinced me!

That brings me back to our Gamba barrels and puncheons. Since we are determined to create the finest Italian varietals in the world here at Viansa, it only makes sense to use the finest Italian-made barrels. You wouldn�t try to make an authentic Italian sauce without traditional Italian herbs such as oregano, parsley and basil, would you? It�s the same thing with wine. To make an authentic Italian wine that is true to its roots, we need to duplicate every step of grape growing and winemaking process � from soil and climate to barrels and puncheons.

about the author
Founded in 1989 by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani, Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace is a destination winery in the Carneros grape-growing region at the entrance to the Sonoma Valley Wine Country. Sam and Vicki created Viansa as a way to share their love of good food, wine and their Italian heritage with visitors from around the world. Dedicated to the marriage of wine and food, Viansa (short for "Vicki and Sam") truly offers visitors a taste of Tuscany in Sonoma Valley. Today, this family-owned and operated winery is proud to be the premier producer of Italian varietals in the United States!


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