Wine Making Barrels: Don’t Discount the Importance of Your Barrels

Originally, wine making barrels were developed by the ancient Celts, but this technology was quickly absorbed by the conquering Roman Empire. The Romans were famous for not only absorbing the peoples they conquered, but also the traditions and technologies that they found useful. In no time, wine making barrels spread throughout the Roman Empire, developing the basis for modern-day usage.

A wine making barrel is made up of staves shaped into a cylinder that bulges in the middle (so it’s easier to roll) and flat heads (i.e. the ends of the barrel). The staves are held in place by galvanized metal hoops. Most wine making barrels weigh 125 – 140 lbs. when empty.

Actual dimensions for a wine making barrel vary because they are hand crafted. The most common oak barrels are the Burgundy Barrel and the Bordeaux Barrel. Barrel heads for the Burgundy barrel are about 23″ in diameter, while barrel heads for a Bordeaux barrel is about 21.5″. Other oak barrels, such as the Hogshead Barrel and the Whiskey Barrel are less common.

French Oak is by and large the most desirable wood used in the creation of wine making barrels. Most French Oak is cultivated from the forests planted in the 1800s for ship building. The Limousin, Allier, Vosges, Nevers, and Trancais forests produce different kinds of oak and winemakers choose their wine making barrels based on what sort of effect they want the wood to have on their wine.

Early attempts at using American Oak in wine barrel making did not go so well, as the oak tended to have too much influence on the wine. Since then, the kinks have been worked out and American Oak barrels have seen more usage. Hungarian Oak is another wood that is used for wine barrel making to a lesser extent.

Coopers (barrel makers) hand select the best wood for their wine making barrels because barrel is a huge factor in determining quality of the wine. The oak is chosen based on growing conditions and tree shape, among other things. These variables determine the tanning content, one of the most important factors in winemaking.
Most wine making barrels are made from white oak. White oak is notorious (in a good way) for its strength, porosity, resilience, character, workability, and weight. It has large thick rays that give it extra bendability and toughness, while keeping it stable during wet swelling and dry shrinkage.

This is just the basics of wine making barrels, but the story doesn’t end here. After these factors are met and the barrel is assembled, the winemaker then has to do his or her own work. Wine making barrels are often toasted (whether wholly or just the heads) or not depending on what sort of flavor the winemaker desires. Believe it or not, the kind of barrel that is used and what is done to it have a huge effect on what sort of wine the finished product is. There’s a lot more to the story than just climate, what sort of grapes are used and how long the wine is aged. The very barrel it is stored in is a huge factor!

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