Grand Cru Barrel Program: All About the Oak
Sonoma-Cutrer is known for its dedication to craftsmanship, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the winery’s Grand Cru Barrel Program. The meticulous process of creating a single hand-crafted barrel takes nearly three years.
Why spend so much time and effort on a humble aging container? Simple: Each oak barrel plays a significant role in the flavors that end up in your favorite glass of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay.
It all starts with the finest French oak, hand selected from individual forests in the heart of France. Professional merrandiers, along with our winemakers, choose specific trees that meet Sonoma-Cutrer’s exacting standards, including straight, tight oak grain with minimal knots, which can cause barrels to leak.
The location of the trees is equally important, as each variation infuses the finished product with distinct flavor notes. For example, the tight grain oak found in slow-growth trees common to cooler climates contributes structure to the wine that allows the fruit to express itself — perfect for the crisp, mineral Les Pierres Chardonnay. Slightly wider grain oak adds caramel and spice characteristics, which complement wines like The Cutrer.
Once selected, the oak is split by hand and seasoned outdoors for 24 to 36 months. Exposure to the elements helps reduce sap, tar and resin in the wood. More importantly, it rids the oak of harsh, bitter tannins. During the seasoning, the splits are turned every 6 months to ensure all unwanted characteristics are leeched from the wood.
Two small family-run tonnellerie’s (coopers) in the Burgundy region then craft the seasoned wood staves into barrels. A relationship that goes back decades, these Old World master craftsmen create barrels specifically suited to the styles of wine produced by Sonoma-Cutrer.
Finally, the barrels are “toasted” over a low, wood-burning fire for up to an hour, depending upon the desired result. Toasting transforms the barrels from a raw, sawdust-type of wood to oak that’s infused with vanilla, caramel, spice and other wine-enhancing compounds.
When it comes to blends like Russian River Ranches and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, the winemakers play the role of chef. Just like their culinary counterparts, who add a variety of spices to any given dish, the winemakers mix oak from various forests and toast levels to add complexity.
At Sonoma-Cutrer, where attention to detail extends to every corner of wine production, aging Chardonnay is its own art form.