Winemakers are always tweaking things in the winery in the pursuit of excellence and to stay relevant in the marketplace – and so it is with cooperages.
Alex John, cooper and chief toaster at AP John in Tanunda, says the business is diversifying all the time. “To remain relevant and at the top of the industry, we are more accepting these days of small changes and nuances, working closer than ever with winemakers, monitoring stylistic differences and evolutionary advancements,” he says.
“We are creating new products for new demands yet drawing on the expertise and experience from previous successes. Our innovation towards new products has been far more spontaneous than in previous years and allowed us to service the rapid developments occurring in the wine game.”
Over the past 12 months AP John has created four new (to APJ) volume barrels and one entirely new bespoke barrel. Joining the standard sizes is a new 115 litre ‘Octave’. “We have created new machinery to move this into a ‘production based’ vessel, rather than a labour-intensive, hand-crafted exercise,” Alex says.
Other new barrels include a 115 litre ‘cut-down’ from used wine and spirit casks to suit the booming craft distillery movement; a proprietary 200 litre barrel for wine and spirit use for a large Californian company; a 228 litre ‘Burgundy Shape’ Barrique, suited to New World Chardonnay and Pinot; and a 260 litre French oak barrel, a volume halfway between a barrique and hogshead.
Alex has noticed more “objective usage” among winemakers in reference to variety/clone/vineyard and the characteristics of that fruit, to then match to a suitable oak type/size/grain structure and toast.
“When a winemaker is looking at a new oak product or refinement, they want it to hit a high achievement percentile from year one, and then improve on it from there,” Alex says.
“This is the exciting interface of my role at AP John – developing an understanding and ‘picture’ of a parcel of fruit from a customer, how our products can interact with it, and how and where to increase its performance. The barrel should be a complete supporting role to highlight the fruit and its profile and help fill in when needed.”
Alex says that all AP John staff have been working on their knowledge of customers, regions and wine styles. “The sales guys and I have undergone AWAC courses and been associate judges at the Barossa Wine Show,” Alex says. “It’s all part of the gig now.”
AP John is involved in numerous ongoing trials with winemakers. “Each vintage brings up new opportunities for innovation and creation,” Alex says. “All going well this vintage, we should soon be able to talk about some cool new game-changers.”
The cooperage continues to embrace new technology and one new addition has changed the Tanunda skyline. “We have one big new blue monster on site,” Alex says.
“Easily sighted from Apex Bakery, the towering structure is our new dust extraction, filtration and air purification system. It captures all dust and shavings in a contained negative pressure room, which in turn drops all product into a 30-foot trailer. It expels absolutely clean air post filter side. All of the shavings are then used for wine use, so we have zero wastage.
Alex says it’s been a busy season for barrels. “It’s been head down, bum up for the past 12 to 18 months,” he says. “We have produced some terrific results due to diversification, innovation and bloody hard work and tenacity.
“Last year was great across the board; the all-round feel in the industry was one of elation. It appeared to lift people’s heads towards the horizon. We’ve encountered more forward thinking, and projects in strong growth phases, than we have for a while.”
Demand for large format oak is still growing. “It seems to be in ever-increasing demand,” Alex says. “We once again grew our vat production for V17, and blew puncheon sales out of the water. The sales guys could have sold our yearly production two times over.”
And what about American versus French oak? “The demand for American oak this year has seriously blown apart all expectations,” Alex says.
“Our refinement and understanding of its usage/grain structure and toasting parameters has allowed us to present products to customers that promote nice integration, generous mid-palate support and flowing tannins – all of these things highlight American oak as a very sexy option across many varieties.
“Having said that, sales of our French oak ‘De Bougogne’ barrel go from strength to strength It is humbling as this is what we have tirelessly focused on for the past few years.”
Alex says a global oak shortage is still a concern – especially in the current 24-36 month seasoned oak market. “Thankfully, due to our long-term forecasting, we have managed to sustain our current production from within our inventory and procurement inventories,” he says.
“While some of the pressure from the spirit side of town has eased, prices have continued to increase on logs and it is tough work out there. We have been working hard to guarantee a continued growth supply of our oak inventory.
“With our long-term suppliers, we have been milling more oak year on year over the past 12 months, with a further growth model in place for the next three years plus. It is the culmination of what 50-year plus relationships and business with primary-source suppliers can achieve.”