It looks like something from the movie “I, Robot,” but unlike the film, this robot isn't out to kill anyone. Instead, "Phoenix" is an innovative piece of wine technology that is shaving dollars off winery bills by taking old barrels and making them as good as new.
“We thought there must be a better way to use oak resources in the wine industry,” says managing director Nick Wickham, “because you take a barrel, you use it for three or four years and then it’s an inert storage vessel at best, or it’s spent. The aromatics, tannins and oak components are all extracted as much as they can.” Wickham is well qualified to comment: he has degrees in both biochemistry and marketing and has worked as a winemaker.
The Phoenix creators are not the first ones to ponder this issue. There have been numerous attempts at rejuvenating barrels, ranging from rough-and-ready angle grinding to scrape out the barrel surface, to blasting barrels with dry ice or sand. But none of the earlier ideas has rejuvenated the barrel to an as-new state, and some have left winemakers with a bad taste in their mouths.
“People have had poor experiences in the past with purported barrel-rejuvenation technology,” says Wickham. He thinks previous developers “haven’t applied technology and accuracy to their techniques. That technology now exists.”
So what makes the Phoenix different? Its $1.5 million machine. At the start of the process, the top and bottom sections of the barrel, known as the ends, are removed. The robot is then placed within the barrel and a laser takes 3,600 individual readings of the inside. This builds up a map of the surface. A high-speed cutting tool is then programed with the information from this barrel-mapping and cuts off 9–10mm from each stave.
The barrels are then re-toasted, not using fire as practised by many coopers, but with an infra-red machine. Two new ends are affixed to the rejuvenated barrel and, hey presto, you have a like-new barrel.
Wickham admits the infra-red toasting doesn't provide the “smoky effect” of fires. But the two new ends, which make up around 30 percent of the barrel surface, mean that one-third is new wood while the oak-like flavors remain in the rejuvenated wood. The process can be performed only once per barrel, so it doesn't yet signal the end of the cooperage business.
Sounds good, but what does it cost? Wickham reports that the price of “Phoenixed” barrels will be 30–40 percent of of that charged for new barrels; they currently run at $850 to $1,250 for a French oak 225-liter unit and approximately $400 to $600 for one made out of American oak. It costs more to rejuvenate a French oak barrel, as the two new ends cost more. However, a rejuvenated French oak barrel can be topped and tailed with American ends to save money.
With 9-10mm shaved off each stave, the wood becomes thinner, which raises the question of oxygen ingress. If there is a smaller barrier between oxygen and the wine inside the barrel, surely the wine will react more quickly with the oxygen, thus maturing more quickly than a wine in a non-Phoenixed barrel? Good question, says Wickham. “Anecdotally, we have done trials with winemakers and there was increasingly rapid maturation. A chardonnay that was in barrel for 12 months would see the same maturity level at 10 months.”
However, there may be other variables involved, he says. “You also find a lot of people are interested in the process and thus they are sampling more often.” He also mentions research papers which suggest that stave thickness and the rate of oxidation (and thus maturation) do not necessarily correlate.
Penley Estate in South Australia’s Coonawarra region has been using the Phoenixed barrels and is happy with the experience. “They don’t replace what a new barrel would give,” says winemaker Greg Foster, “but if you have a lot of barrels, as we do – over 3,000 – they are a good alternative to increasing the life of your oak barrel, and [the makeover] can clean up and refresh older barrels.
“We put 5- to 6-year-old French oak barrels through the Phoenix process. In terms of oak flavor, the Phoenixed barrels seem to be the equivalent of a second-fill new barrel and suit our $20 cabernet [sauvignon] by offering good harmonious oak and tannin integration without being obvious or too extracted.”
Since its inception, the Phoenix robot has been set to work on 8000 barrels in Australia. “Over the next two to five years, we are aiming to do 4,000 barrels a year [in Australia], 3,000 in New Zealand and in excess of 10,000 in California,” says Wickham.
Over the course of an eight-hour working day, the robot can rejuvenate 80 barrels, or 17,000 a year – a figure that takes into account operator stoppages for coffee and lunch breaks, as well as public holidays. Left to its own devices, the robot could work around the clock, so its potential capacity is far higher. However, human operators are still needed.
You might think that wineries would be queuing up to save money on barrels during such hard times, but alas, no. “One of the first things to go when there’s price pressure on the wine industry is the luxuries, like oak,” says Wickham. “When you don’t have any money to spend, it’s still an outgoing to get your barrel rejuvenated.”
Nevertheless, with more than half a million new barrels produced in France each year, his company certainly has a large potential market.