Oak Barrels and other types of wooden barrels are fundamental to wine & whisky aging and development. Without barrels to store these tender spirits and fermented grapes, the wine and liquor industry simply would not exist. Oak Barrels are responsible for giving both wine and whisky their unique and distinct flavour profiles. Depending on the different qualities of the barrel, each barrel can yield different results in it's flavouring based on the material used, aging process, firing process, and charring process. In this definitive guide you will learn all there is to know - in-depth - on what goes into making Wine Barrels and why they are so unique.
Part 1 - How Wine Barrels are Made
Crafting barrels is a tradition that dates back to over 8,000 years. It is deeply rooted in tradition and to this day the exact, intricate crafting process is a well kept tradition and ridden with secrecy. Each individual barrel first starts off at a cooperage. The cooperage is the birth place of the barrel; an atelier where master woodworkers assiduously toil to bend and manipulate white oak into wine staves.
The Staves start out as raw and freshly milled pieces of white oak. Typically each stave is left to cure outdoors for a period of roughly 1-3 years. During this time the natural sugars in the wood begin to ferment and bleed from the grain, which helps brings flavour to whatever spirit or wine is housed within. Once the Staves have foregone the natural aging process - a master cooper then inspects each individual stave by looking at the grain, sap bleed, knots, and worm holes within the wood. If not to standards, it is not selected. There are fewer than 50 master coopers in the entire United States. These men and women are highly skilled in the time honoured craft of barrel-making, having honed their trade through years of back-breaking as coopers.
Once the white oak staves have been selected, the master cooper then assembles all 32 staves in a ring system to confirm the snug fit and puzzle the pieces together. A master cooper is able to do this without even inspecting them in the ringing & assembly system - he or she knows exactly how each stave will individually fit at first glance. The ring also places a temporary ring on the staves to ensure they don't fall apart during the next process.
To bend the staves into the barrel shape without cracking the wood, each barrel is warmed over an open fire. Often through a manual process of starting a fire with scrap white oak staves as to keep the barrel pure. Once the outside of the barrel reaches 300˚F, temporary hoops are placed on the barrel by a hydraulic press to mechanically shape the barrel.
Once the barrel has been shaped and bent into place after being heated over an open flame, it returns to a high temperature fire where it begins its process of toasting. Toasting or charring a barrel crystallizes the natural sugars found in wood and brings them out, releasing succulent and pungent aromas of lavender, marshmallows, and freshly baked bread. Ultimately it is this toasting process that gives wine it's unique flavour and characteristics.
After the assembly has been completed, the barrels are then stamped with their cooperage, oak detail, char and bake detail, and date, and often sent off to winery's and vineyards around the world - where they then undergo the process of aging wine from anywhere from 2-50 years!
After the toasting process completes, the temporary hoops that had been placed on the barrel to keep the staves secure during the first 3 phases of assembly are now replaced with permanent galvanized steel hoops. The hoops used from top to bottom are as follows :
- The Head Hoop - Secures the top of the barrel.
- Quarter Hoop - Secures the upper mid section of the barrel.
- Bilge Hoop - Secures the mid section of the barrel - the largest part.
- Bottom Hoops - Secure the barrel bottom
Hooping the barrel serves an important role to keep all the contents sealed inside securely!
Part 2 - parts of a wine barrel
The different parts of a barrel all serve different purposes; but they all beautifully synchronize to achieve the same common goal - sealing the contents inside.
Every Barrel Head tells the story of it's origins, life cycle and history.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the wine barrel is it's ability to trace it's origins and history. Each barrel head is engraved with a set of stamps and tracking numbers that relate to where the barrel was originally sourced from, it's winery, toast, grain, and age. When buying one of our Barrel Head products you can take pride in knowing that your individual piece is unique - no other identical copy has ever been created from it - it is 1:1 copy of itself.
part 3 - FLAVOuR PROFILES
The toasting phase is a key stage, mellowing wood’s harsh tannins and mitigating raw oak flavours. There are multiple types of toast levels which are chosen specifically by the winery for different flavours and profiles matched with different wines.
- Light Toast (LT) - Enhanced structure & light notes of toast
- Medium Toast (MT) – Soft caramel accented by toasted bread
- Medium Toast Plus (MT+) – Sweet cream with notes of vanilla & brown sugar
- Heavy Toast (HT) - Rich mocha character accentuates darker fruits
- Toasted Heads (TH) – Barrel heads are toasted or plain by winery request
pART 4- THE GRAIN
Wood buyers look for the straightest oak trees possible, which provide straight wood grain with as few flaws as possible. The use of French Haute Futaie, or superior growth, wood from 150- to 200-year-old forests ensures dense, tightly packed grain and fine tannins.
- Medium Grain: Works well with shorter aged wines, 12 months or less, like Pinot Noir & Chardonnay
- Mixed Grain – 50% tight grain & 50% medium grain. Allows more oxygenation and a faster maturing
- Tight Grain – The most popular grain type, Used when aging wines in barrels for 12-24 months or when working with a high quality fruits
- Extra Tight Grain – The highest quality barrel – used to achieve a seamless integration of the oak. Used for again 18-24 months
- Typically dries outside in the forest to accent the natural flavour profiles in the wood.
- 24 months – Best suited for medium to long aging, to enhance the wine palate and add bright aromas
- 36 months – Designed to respect the fruit and bring complexity, volume and length to high end wines
- 48 months – Crafted for long aging to bring depth, finesse and silky tannins to top wines
Oak Wine Barrels are an important aspect and are deeply rooted in tradition with an ancient heritage untouched by time. We hope to help educate you on the delicate and elaborate process that goes into make each individual wine barrel and hope to give you as much passion as we share. Be sure to visit our online shop to see all of our fine works of art, which ultimately originate from a single cooperage.
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