What’s the ‘Big Barrel’ All About?
It’s on the label, but what does it mean? Steve Bird explains how his Big Barrels are key to his flagship Marlborough Pinot Noir.My Big Barrels are very special fermentation vessels. I commissioned them to be built from the best French oak I could get, by Tonnellerie Vernou, near Cognac in France. Each Big Barrel has a capacity of 900 litres – that’s the equivalent of 100 cases of wine. It is unusual to ferment a red wine in barrel. But there’s good reason to depart from conformity.
We harvest our pinot noir into field bins that hold one tonne – the same capacity as the each of the Big Barrels. This means that every Big Barrel represents a unique block within the vineyard, often just a single row.
The fruit is destemmed but I don’t crush it. This gives me pristine, whole berries to work with. The fruit from each bin is transferred directly into a Big Barrel, via the stainless-steel access door built into the side.
Once the door is closed, the magic begins. Over the course of four to five days, the fermentation will start spontaneously, due to the natural wild yeasts present on the grapes from the vineyard. Only after the wild-yeast ferment is underway, do I add a selected strain of cultivated yeast, to preserve the bright, vibrant cherry and berry-fruit characteristics that this method of whole-berry fermentation provides.
During ferment, which generally lasts 10 – 12 days, I don’t plunge or pump-over the cap to extract tannin and colour. Instead, the Big Barrels are mounted on rollers. With some grunting and wheezing – from the cellar-hands – every Big Barrel is rolled, three times per day.Rolling means that the grapes skins, which contain all the colour and most of the flavour and texture compounds, are gently mixed with the must, so that all that colour and flavour is extracted into the fermenting wine.
After fermentation finishes, the wine remains on skins in the Big Barrels for a further two weeks, just quietly doing its thing. Then, it is pressed off and sent back to the Big Barrels for maturation. Tasting the barrels regularly, I determine the optimum period of maturation each vintage – but the wine is usually in oak for about another ten months.
The whole purpose behind the Big Barrel process isn’t so much about oak flavour in the wine as it is about capturing and preserving the inherent quality of our wonderful pinot noir fruit. With this process we get rich, deep fruit flavours of dark cherry, other dark berries and earthy, savoury notes. It creates tannins that are long and silky and they contribute the superb texture and mouthfeel of the wine. It also helps to impart the beautiful, deep, lustrous colour of Steve Bird Big Barrel Pinot Noir.
It’s a lot of work and a lot of money – those Big Barrels were expensive! But every time I open a bottle, I know it’s all been worth it – and I’m confident you’ll feel it too.