Have you ever wondered where the circle around Saturn comes from? Interestingly enough it was discovered that one of the moons of Saturn, called Enceladus, is successful in shooting ice grains far enough to form Saturn’s ring…

Just as amazed as I was 12 years ago when I was introduced to Saturn, I was when Ice Jet came to clean some of my barrels. The technology was introduced to me a while ago, and we have decided to put it to the test.

The coopers come to your site with their mobile unit and remove the heads of the barrels to expose the inside of the barrel. And this is where I saw to my total amazement the biggest, deadliest blisters you can imagine! And I was even more appalled when I saw and smelled the puss that drizzled out of these opened wounds…I call on all winemakers to inspect your barrels, please! I have some understanding now of why barrel differences occur, why Brett spoils our wine, why volatile acidity increase sporadically, and, and, and…If only barrel inspection helped…older barrels with these types of blisters induce most of the nightmares in very expensive, barrel maturing wines!

How does this work? The CO2 ice pellets are blasted onto the contaminated barrel surface at -790 C and basically “delaminates” contaminants from the wood. Once the ice makes contact with the wood surface it, returns to its natural gas (CO2) state and expands up to 700 times to create shock waves. This effect drives brittle materials from the surface as tartrate crystals and sediments are frozen, fractured and removed exposing original, unused toasted oak surface.

It removes not only sediment, but also contaminants on up to 99% of the interior surface of the barrel. Most bacteria and mold spores are removed, which leaves the barrel in a cleaner state than any chemical or physical process can.

During the ice blasting process a layer of wood between 0,5 and 1,2 mm is removed, exposing a freshly toasted oak surface to the next cycle of wine. This also restores micro-oxygenation as a result of restored porosity. As toasting during cooperage is typically up to 1 cm deep, there is no need for re-toasting after ice blasting.

In a major project testing this technology in the USA, very promising results were obtained. The tests showed that the treatment allowed the barrels to impart significantly more oak volatiles into the wine. The only volatiles, which showed lower readings, were guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, which is responsible for “smoky”, and “chary” flavors. Organoleptic evaluations found the treatment to result in wines with improved fresh oak, vanilla, butterscotch and coconut flavors, decreased smoke/char flavors and fresher, cleaner fruit.

It is not the cheapest way to clean barrels, but as sure as the ice circle around Saturn, the most effective and hygienic way to clean barrels!

Bertus Fourie is a winemaker, turned Enology lecturer and creator of the Barista coffee Pinotage.