Foudre- (Food’r)- French term for a large cask of indefinite size1
At Tablas Creek we follow the Châteauneuf-du-Pape tradition of maturing our red wines in 1200 gallon (4500 liter) French oak foudres rather than in the more familiar 60 gallon (225 liter) oak barrels. These smaller barrels – known in French as fûts, pieces, or barriques – are those commonly found in Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as California. Each of our foudres holds enough wine to fill 500 twelve-bottle cases, twenty times the volume of a typical barrel. The larger size of the foudres has three principal advantages for us:
- Larger volume to surface area ratio. Compared to aging the equivalent volume of wine in small barrels, using a foudre gives a greater ratio of volume to surface area so that any impact of oak on the wine is gentler even when barrels are new. This gentler oak, we feel, is appropriate to our southern Rhône style wines based on Mourvèdre and Grenache, wines whose flavors are not compatible with the vanillin character of new oak.
- Gentle, low-level oxygen exchange. The thick staves of the foudres (more than two inches thick) allow the wine to breathe, soften and integrate in a way that they don’t in an impermeable stainless steel tank, but still protect the wine against oxidation. Small barrels, with staves just ¾ inch thick, can provide too much oxygenation to oxidation-prone varieties like Grenache and Counoise.
- Lifespan. The barrels are so well made that we would expect them to last for decades. Beaucastel has foudres that have been in continuous use for half a century, and we expect ours to last a similar length of time. The barrels provide a gentle oak flavor their first few years, but are fully neutral by year five. If we assume an average barrel lifespan of 50 years, then for 90% of its lifespan it will be totally neutral, which suits our style of wine.
Although some lots are moved to foudre after pressing while they complete their sugar and malolactic fermentation, their principal use is post-blending, when all our red wines spend the better part of a year in foudre to allow their components to integrate. So, whenever you have our Esprit de Beaucastel, Panoplie, Côtes de Tablas or one of our varietal reds, you’re having a wine that spent a large piece of its life in foudre.
Foudres are not much used for white wines in the Rhone. But for the last five years we fermented Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in foudre, and have found that we like these lots enough each year to choose them for our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. One advantage of using the foudres over stainless steel tanks is that the shape of the barrels and the slight oxygen exposure facilitate aging on the lees, and we typically keep the whites on their lees until they’re blended six months after harvest. Three foudres are reserved for fermenting and ageing white wines (eighteen are reserved for ageing of our red wines).
The horizontal foudre is not the only large wooden tank we use. Since 2007 we have incorporated two upright 60-hectoliter (1600 gallon) wooden casks for fermenting and aging reds. These casks (pictured above, right) have the advantage of a flat bottom and a door flush with the bottom of the tank as well as a large metal door on top. The door on top means that the tank can be used either as an open-top fermenter and punched down, or sealed shut like a closed fermenter. The flat bottom and flush door mean that solids like skins and seeds can be removed from the tank, a sufficiently difficult challenge in foudres that we don’t even attempt skin-contact fermentation in them. These wooden uprights have produced such consistently excellent lots that we just purchased two more, and have two additional ones ordered to arrive before this year’s harvest.
Of course, not all lots come in 1200-gallon size, and we still use smaller barrels for certain wines (like Syrah) for which we value both the additional oxygen exposure and the greater oak flavor that the small barrels provide. But even with smaller barrels we choose larger volumes when possible, principally 120 gallon (450 liter) puncheons and 160 gallon (600 liter) demi-muids. These barrels, roughly double and triple the size of “normal” barrels, still provide a greater ratio of volume to surface area and therefore a gentler oak signature. They’re also better-made and last longer, which is important since we want to use them for as long as possible after they’re fully neutral.
While these large oak barrels are traditional in the southern Rhone, they’re also widely found in other regions where oak aging is desirable but oak flavors are not, including Alsace and Tuscany. But they’re rare in California, and typically make such an impression on our visitors that we designed our new tasting room to showcase them:
But these amazing barrels are not just for show. We use them because we believe that they’re better for the wines we want to make. And we’re convinced that our extensive use of these large barrels, and the focus they put on the fruit and terroir, is a key factor that sets our wines apart from those of our neighbors.
1Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Hastings House, 1970