Before we delve into the process of making a barrel, we need to ask ourselves one simple question: why oak? What is so special about oak, and why do winemakers consider it superior to barrels made from other woods?
In the past cherry, pine, walnut, chestnut and other woods have been made into barrels and used to age wine… but none compare. To put it simply, wine and oak have an affinity for one another. Oak takes a wine and “calms” it down, matures it, makes it soft on the palate and beautiful to drink…. but by no means assume that this means that oak “tames” a wine into being boring: it also makes the wine more interesting and gives it complexity and depth that cannot evolve on its own. Oak is the wise, mature mentor to the young apprentice (wine) and just as a mentor imparts wisdom on a student, oak imparts the complex flavors in well-made wines that are the wine world version of intelligence.
Do we always need oak barrels to make wine?
No. Some wines that are more delicate, like the Beaujoulais or Gamay red wines or the white Riesling, would be overpowered if left to age in oak. These wines are aged in stainless steel tanks, which does not impart flavors into the wine, allowing their true essence to shine through. The same process goes for crisp wines like Sauvignon Blanc, who would lose the crispness that they are known for if left in oak. In an attempt to move away from the highly oaked, incredibly buttery Chardonnays, some winemakers are choosing to age Chardonnay in stainless steel as well.
Choosing prime oak trees
We digress now to our initial purpose: the process of making a barrel. Just as we can’t talk about wine without talking about the grapes and the terroir which the wine came from, we can’t really talk about wine barrels without talking about the trees from which they were made or the place they were grown. And it turns out that, just like wine, there are only certain regions and climates where oak grows optimally: some of the most sought-after barrels are made from wood grown in the forests of Limousin, Alliers, Troncais, Vosges and Nevers in France and Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Oregon in the United States.
Why these areas? Their cold climate creates a slow-growing tree, making a barrel that is optimal for aging wine. Like all living plants, oak is affected by weather: it grows slower when the weather is cold and warmer when the weather is hot. As we all know, each year a tree adds a new ring to its trunk: this ring is the tree’s growth for the year and will obviously be larger in warmer climates (forming what is called a “loosely grained” wood) and smaller in colder ones (forming a “tightly grained” wood). Barrels made from tightly grained wood will impart their flavors into the wine more slowly, making a wine with better integrated oak flavors and aromas.
Harvesting oak trees/Making a barrel
An oak tree typically cannot be harvested until it is one hundred years old. Traditionally, the coopers (barrel makers) hand split the wood and then allow it to dry outdoors–exposed to elements of rain, sun, etc–for roughly two years. In this time frame the majority of the tannins from the wood are pulled out through exposure to the elements, leaving a wood with softer tannins to be imparted into wine.
Actually forming the wood into the barrel shape is difficult: coopers heat the pieces of wood (called “staves”) over a fire, which makes them bendable so that they can be shaped. Only winches and chains are used to help as the rings are hammered into place and the staves are sealed together. Barrels are incredibly heavy and must be held over intense heat during nearly the entire procedure; needless to say, is a tiring process! In some strange coincidence, the process of holding the barrel over the fire not only makes the wood pliable enough to be bent into shape, but it also caramelizes the sugars in the wood, thus giving the barrel a desirable toasty, vanilla flavor which is then imparted into the wood.
The cost of a barrel and its life span
A French barrel costs roughly $900 to $1,000 and an American oak barrel is roughly $400. Typically, a good cooper can make one barrel per day, and a a quality barrel is used for about five years in higher-end wineries, where they are used to age the winery’s top wines for the first two years or so, and are then used for the lower-production wines for the remaining three. After the first five years, the barrels are usually sold to smaller production wineries or to home winemakers for several more years of use; eventually they are cut into half and used as planters (at least, they are at our house!).
Here is a fascinating video of how a barrel is made to better help you understand the process. Enjoy!