History Over a Barrel

I like looking at the classified sections of my wine magazines and E-zines.  This ad caught my eye the other day: 1999 Used Pinot Noir Barrels-Low Miles!

Most of us know that barrels make a difference in how wine is aged and flavored, but when we drink wine can we tell if the barrels are new French Oak,  three year old American Oak, or old enough to make the ultimate sacrifice in becoming a garden planter?

Two years ago I organized an event where we had barrel making, or cooperage, demonstrations throughout the day. What skill it takes.  Cooperage is an ancient craft that uses a lot of brute strength and finessing of details to create a storage container that is so much more than Tupperware.

The history of wooden barrels dates back to around 100 BC.  The Celtic technology of heating wood to make boats was transferred to the construction of the barrel.  Clay pots had been the wine vessel of choice but wooden barrels did better in colder climates and were easier to transport and stack for storing.  Until World War I it was the cooper who made the barrels for a specific winery and then looked after the cellared wine for the vintner.

Louis Pasteur, at the request of Napoleon III in 1863, was the first to study the phenomenon of oxy-reduction, or slow oxidation. He had been instructed to find the reasons for wine spoilage. He found that wine, even when carefully protected from contact with air, would absorb oxygen through the staves, but in particular during racking.  His conclusion was that excessive contact with the air allowed vinegar-producing bacteria to flourish. But he also found that very slight amounts of oxygen helped the maturation of the wine even over several years following bottling.

Using wood is complicated as it must infuse the wine with flavor and tannins without allowing too much evaporation.  Oak is perfect for that. There are 400 identified botanical species of oak in France. Robur and Sessile Oak are the predominant species used in barrel making. The size of the tree makes a difference as does the way the forest is managed.

The stave wood is split along the pith rays of the tree rather than sawed. By splitting the wood the fibers separate but respect the lines of their growth, this also prevents the wood from shrinking and swelling due to weather conditions.  Cutting these fibers across the grain would make the barrel too porous.

To make a barrel the cooper has to bend the wood through wetting it then heating over a fire, the staves are winched into the classic wine barrel shape and then the new barrel is heated again and held in place by six iron and eight wooden hoops. The fire toasts the wood inside the barrel and this also builds the complexity of flavors.

New oak barrels are expensive. A French oak barrel costs around $550 to $700. and an American Oak barrel is about half of that.  Most winemakers use a barrel for four years. A new barrel’s flavor is extremely “oaky.” By the second year, the oakiness is half as strong and by the third it’s half again as flavored. By year four, a barrel is considered “neutral,” and does not impart much flavor.

So why buy a 1999 model?   Small wineries and home winemakers can’t afford to get new barrels so they look to recycle what they have and expand their operation by adding on used barrels.  But they don’t have to compromise on flavor.  Today winemakers can give the barrels a longer life by using renewal systems, which include new staves to put inside the old barrel or adding wood chips, sticks and powders that have been toasted to different levels of darkness or vanilla flavor.

Wine barrels are much more than just a container, each winemaker uses their barrels like an artist uses a brush, and the results are a combination of history, natural resources, and individuality.


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