Whenever I get to learn a new winemaking task, I get really excited; I know, it sounds a little ridiculous, but you have to remember that all winemaking is like a story. There are no chapters you can skip. This week I finally got to learn about topping up barrels.
So, after wine is siphoned into barrels, they begin their barrique aging/texturing process. Because the wine is still exposed to some amount of air, a portion of the wine evaporates as well as soaks into the oak staves. New oak barrels lose more wine than neutral because their staves are sucking up so much wine.This lost wine, also sweetly referred to as the “angels’ share”, does need to be replenished, sometimes as much as once a week. And if there is more humidity in the winery, more wine will evaporate. With the coming storm this weekend, some of the Chardonnay barrels we topped were shockingly low. I kept pouring 2 and 3 liters of topping wine and they just never seemed to want to fill up. Taka kept asking wide-eyed, “Really? Another liter?” And all I could do was ask him to keep it coming.
Since all winemakers anticipate their barrels losing wine to air/stave exposure, they make sure to create topping wines in advance. Topping wines are often designated as such according to how much excess juice is available from a larger amount of fruit you’ve acquired. This excess wine is then purposely reserved to be used as the wine to freshen and replenish lost juice as wine ages in barrel in order to avoid too much prolonged oxygen in the “ullage” (the open space between the surface of the wine and top of the barrel) that, instead of aiding the aging process, will only begin to oxidize your wine.
Winemakers also top up with wine from a varietal that is not the one in barrel, and this is often done by simply purchasing inexpensive bottles of wine from BevMo or whatever’s closest to you that has a decent wine selection. Be sure to check to make sure you haven’t accidentally purchases any corked wine, too! Obviously, you’re trying to pick out inexpensive wines that you believe hold a similar or complimentary fruit flavor to what’s currently in barrel. So, to put it short, I wouldn’t top a Pinot with a Cabernet (due to the tannin that’s present in Cab) or an aged Nebbiolo…ha, that would be interesting. And dumb. Duh.
The other way to create topping wine is to simply pull bottled vintages from previous years that are still fresh and newly aging in order to brighten your wine or fill any low barrels.
It’s funny, but in knowing this, it means there really aren’t many single vintage wines, (especially reds) out there in the market given that so many of them are topped with another year’s wine. And of course, if you factor in that they may be topped with another varietal or another vineyard (same varietal as what’s in the barrel though), they could technically be referred to as a cuvee! That said, the understanding behind topping up is that there is never so much wine added to the point that it would completely alter what’s in barrel. If topping up was that risky, I’m sure winemakers would only ever use reserved wine
When I learned about topping up barrels at Ed’s facility, Taka showed me the ropes. To top up, you only need the following equipment: a siphoning tube, 3 L and 1 L containers, and an alcohol spray bottle. If the topping wine is in a stainless steel keg with a portable lid that pressurized to fit the level the wine’s at, you can pull off the pressure lid that’s been suctioned on just above the surface of the wine (to keep out unwanted air) to siphon out wine. Make sure you dip the tube just below the surface to avoid siphoning out too many dead insects, yet low enough without hitting the bottom and siphoning out a mess of lees. If you are pulling wine from a keg that has a permanent head cover, you can simply pull out the bung and insert the tube down into the wine to siphon it out with ease.
I finally decided to get the whole wine siphoning thing figured out once and for all. I have continually sucked at this task (no pun intended). But today, I made up my mind to do it! This time I used a fatter, shorter tube, making it easier to suck wine through and to see it coming. The first time I tried it, I sucked so hard and fast that it made too big of an air bubble in the tube, causing a big dose of topping wine to shoot into my mouth and hit the back of my throat in a hurry, whereupon I almost started choking. The second time I tried, I made sure to hold the tube’s curvature toward me so that I could better control the pressure of wine I was sucking through and, even though there was a slight air bubble, it worked because there was enough pressure and amount of wine in the tube to push through the bubble – yay!
The size of the container you’ll be pouring your topping wine from does matter, but only for topping up barrels on the lower rack because nothing larger than a 1 L container will fit between barrels. When you first take out the bung, be sure to use a flashlight to determine what level the wine is at. When I did my first barrel toppings, it had been awhile since the barrels had been topped up, and so, their wine level was pretty far down. It took many, many trips to get them filled.
To make things more interesting, we were topping up on a day when the first front of a huge La Nina storm was sweeping through San Francisco, and while in the midst of topping up a barrel on the higher rack, the lights went out and we lost power! Fortunately, Taka and I both had flashlights, but it did make for an interesting completion of task, involving some spillage of wine of course. Eventually, the lights came back on and all was well, but that was a fun topsy turvy affair!
After you fill the barrel up to the base circumference of the bung hole, lightly twist the bung back into place and either use a warm wet paper towel to lap up excess wine that may have spilled on the barrel or pour a little warm water over the top.
Excessive racking also requires more topping up; however, Ed only racks once, as opposed to the more traditional quarterly racking that Burgundy might apply.
Ed also uses a wand that attaches to a handheld lever (like the one we used to manually fill bottles) that attaches to a very long tube (which is inserted into the bung hole of a barrel) to siphon out wine for topping up. That said, he sometimes needs total silence to fill barrels in this way since this equipment is purposely designed to reach barrels that are hard to get to. And even once you get to them, it’s pretty impossible to apply the usual technique of holding a flashlight in one hand and the lever in the other to see so that you can fill the barrel appropriately. Instead, you listen to the barrel as its volume increases while you pump in wine. It’s a pretty neat trick. I love these techniques as they are so sensorial!