What is a wine barrel?
A wine barrel is a hollow cylindrical container that is longer than it is wide and has a rounded, bulging middle. Wine barrels are made of wooden “staves” that are bound by wood or metal hoops.
Wine barrels have been used for centuries for storing and transporting wine, and even to this day wine barrels are still being used. The fermentation and ageing of a lot of red wines and a fair number of white wines happens in oak wine barrels.
The Importance of a Wine Barrel:
Why are wine barrels used in the winemaking process?
While wine barrels were originally used for portability purposes, wine barrels are now mainly used in the processes of fermentation and ageing. When a wine is stored in a wine barrel, it receives flavours and aromas from the wood. Cedar, oak, vanilla, coconut, floral and even fruity flavours and aromas can be picked up from the wood and infused into the wine. Different kinds of wood will leave different impressions in the wine, as well as wood from different regions. For example, a wood from France might give off more floral notes than a wood from North America.
Wine Barrel Materials:
What is the best wood for wine barrels?
Years ago cherry, chestnut, pine, walnut and other wood types were used to make wine barrels. Nowadays, winemakers consider oak to be the superior wood for wine barrels. This is because oak is strong and the chemical it releases help improve the quality and flavour of the wine inside. Winemakers have found that oak can make wine softer yet give it more complexity and depth.
Not all wines are fermented and aged in oak wine barrels. Oak can sometimes overpower delicate wines, such as Gamay red wines or the white Rieslings when they are left to age in oak barrels. Crisp wines like a Sauvignon Blanc, that would lose the crispness that they are known for if left in oak, are often kept in stainless steel tanks.
How are wine barrels made?
Wine barrels are made from long strips of wood, called staves, that are attached to a metal hoop and bent using fire and a tightening contraption. Coopers must be patient and have a great attention to detail in order to make wine barrels.
Wait a second… What is a cooper?
A cooper is the professional title for a “barrel maker”! The act of barrel making is called cooperage.
The wine barrel is one type of cask a cooper makes; but others include the kilderkins, hogsheads, butts, and many more. Wine barrels are also known as “tight cooper barrels” which is where the title of “cooper” comes from.
Step 1: Sawing the staves
The cooper will take around 3 lengths of wood and split each of them into four separate pieces. The barrel-maker will use these smaller pieces to make the staves that will make up the wine barrel. Once all the staves are cut they are sanded and shaped. Typically 25 to 30 staves will be needed for a wine barrel that holds 225L of wine.
Step 2: Assembling the wine barrel (Mise en Rose)
“Mise en Rose” is the french term for the assembly of a barrel. In this step the cooper will take a large steel ring and start placing the wooden staves all around the inside of the ring. Once all staves have been assembled, the ring can be tightened.
Are you a visual learner?
Ignore this step-by-step wine barrel making tutorial and watch this video on how a traditional wine barrel is made.
Step 3: Bending the staves to form the wine barrel
To fully form the wine barrel, the staves need to be bent into shape. The staves are first brushed with water. The cooper will then light a small fire in the middle of the barrel. The combination of humidity and heat makes the wood flexible. The cooper places another ring around the bottom of the barrel and as the wood begins to heat up, a large vise will tighten the staves together. This is an extremely slow and long process that can take hours to complete.
Next the cooper will “toast” the interior of the barrel. This step has a huge impact on the flavour of the wine stored in the barrel. A small fire is lit again to singe the inside of the barrel. More singeing will result in a richer, smokey flavour. It is important not to over char or burn the barrel during this step.
Step 4: Adding a top and bottom to the barrel
Once the wine barrel has been singed to perfection, the cooper will make a lip in the top and bottom of the barrel to place the lids on. The lids are also made by hand. The old, dirty metal rings are removed, so the wood can shift slightly to create a very tight seal with the lids. New rings will then be added back to the barrel.
In order to ensure the wine barrel is completely waterproof, thin pieces of straw are placed between the spaces between the staves. After making sure the wine barrel is fully waterproof, the cooper will drill a hole in the side of the barrel. This is how the wine will be poured in and out.
Step 5: Finishing touches to the newly-made wine barrel
Once the wine barrel is almost finished, the cooper will sand all the staves until they are smooth. The cooper will also but his stamp on the barrel to indicate their brand.
The wine barrel is now complete and ready to go to a winery! Cheers!
Wine Barrel Making Tutorial Videos: