The Life of a Wine Barrel

Wine barrels begin as oak trees. While redwood was used for a time, barrels are traditionally constructed of oak. Many consider French oak to be superior to all others, but American oak is becoming more popular. When American oak was first used, the barrels were poorly cut, aged, and constructed, and colored the flavor of the wine too much. Better construction and aging techniques have proven that American oak has no more impact on the wine than their French cousins. Since American oak does not yet have a long history, it is still a good bit cheaper than French oak.

When the oak tree is selected (based in part on shape and growth patterns) and cut, it is delivered to a cooperage. Wood selection is very important because it has so much influence over the wine. A skilled cooper inspects the wood to ascertain the amount of tannin and how fine the grain is. White oak is favored for its resilience, toughness, and flexibility. It has a good weight and is only slightly porous. White oak is strong and bendable, but remains stable during dry or wet periods.

Once the wood is chosen, the logs are split by hand so the veins won’t be broken and the barrels will be watertight. Logs are quartered and cut into staves, which will form the sides of the barrel. After the staves are split and planed they are stored in tiers to be naturally weather aged. Exposure to air and water purges the wood of contaminants, unwanted odors, and the more bitter tannins which might taint the flavor of the wine. The wood must age several years.

After the wood has aged, the staves are cut to required length, narrowed at the ends, and made slightly concave on the inside. After inspection, they are transported to the cooper to be assembled.

Only the best staves are selected by the cooper, who then assembles them inside a metal hoop. This initial assembly is called “mise en rose” or “raising the barrel”. A solid hold is created by forcing several more hoops into place. The “rose” is then dampened and the inside is charred over a small fire. This charring, called toasting, is a deliberate step and imparts a particular flavor to the wine. Vintners choose light, medium, or heavy toast according to the grapes being used and the flavor that is desired.

With the aid of a winch, the dampened, heated wooden staves are arched and tightened until the proper barrel shape is obtained and more metal hoops are placed. Each end of the barrel is trimmed and an inside croze (groove) is cut. The croze allows for a tight fit of the barrel head, which is custom cut for each croze.

The barrel is set on end and the barrel heads are fitted into the croze. The final hoop is forced into place which firmly seats the barrel head. If the tested barrel is watertight, it is finished by the cooper. He planes and sandpapers to highlight the beauty of the oak grain. A single finished barrel takes more than eight man hours to produce.

Each barrel can be used for wine for only about five years, after which the oak flavorings are exhausted. Some flavor restoration can be made by shaving layers from the inside of the barrel and recharring, or by adding oak slates to the inside. Though this can extend barrel life for up to ten years, the flavorings aren’t as reliable. For this reason, most vintners choose to purge old barrels and purchase new ones.

Most used barrels are cut in two and used or sold as planters. Some barrels are converted to trash containers for outdoor areas. These seem to be a sad end to the fine and painstaking craftsmanship of the barrel.