Today’s Wine Word: Angel’s Share


Photo: Helpman 77 on Flickr

The “angel’s share” got a quick mention in yesterday’s post, the term is actually appropriate to the season in at least two ways. One for obvious reasons and the other to do with actual wine making. 

You might think that after all that hard work during harvest that winemakers take a long vacation. Well, they probably would except that the Controller is breathing down their necks to get the new wine into barrels. The sooner it’s in the barrel the sooner it’s out, and the winery can begin to get some return on its investment! 

However, once the barrels are filled up they don’t stay that way. The wine is constantly evaporating, ever so slowly. Depending upon the humidity in the cellar the loss can be anywhere from 2- 5% or up to 15 bottles annually! And that accounts for all the angels hovering there in the cellar. The Angel’s Share is the tariff they impose to allow the wine to age. Aging is actually a slow oxidation so the winemaker has to build the Angel’s Share into her cost of doing business.

Those darned angels create work, too! It’s not healthy for the wine to have an air space at the top of the barrel – it’s an invitation to bacterial activity and consequent spoilage. And this creates another Wine Word: The cellar crew needs to add more wine to each barrel, periodically, and the procedure is called “topping” or “topping up”. Most will let a little wine spill over the top to make sure the barrel is absolutely full.   

In the world of fine wine, the most common topping schedule seems to be once a month. On my last visit to Opus One they claimed to top up the barrel every week – lordy – if true, that’s a lot of labor! That might be appropriate when the barrels are brand new. The new wood is dry and even thirstier than the angels! But, after a few months the barrels become saturated and they should be able to relax the topping schedule a bit. 

One winemaker told me that her evaporation loss differed at one end of the barrel cellar compared to the other, due to differences in humidity, and it definitely affected her topping schedule. At one end she had to top twice a month, at least at first, and at the other only every few months. 

Confession: The whole concept of topping always leaves me confused. The point is to prevent oxidation. Yet, the more frequently the barrels are topped the more often the wine is exposed to air when the bung comes out. Hmmm… Well, you can’t argue with success and winemakers are pragmatists: they do what works for them even if some of it is somewhat mysterious. And, what would wine be without a little mystery?

So, when you walk into the barrel cellar in a winery and enjoy the lovely, heady fragrance you can be happy in knowing that there are lots of slightly tipsy angels there, enjoying it too. I wish you all the loveliest of holidays. And, bottoms up! 

Send me your wine question  I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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