In my first entry about cooperage, I discussed the science behind the oak that is used to make the barrels. Although it completely amazes me how much the science influences the decision of which trees to choose, the actual craftsmanship of the barrel astonishes me. The time and precision that it takes to craft a single barrel blows my mind.
In this picture you can see the components of a barrel. In its most basic form, it is staves held together by hoops. The hoops are held together by rivets and there is a bung hole for access. But there is so much more than the basic that goes into the production of a wine barrel.
The side staves are typically chosen from wood that is a minimum of 100 years old with a diameter between 45 – 60cm. Larger trees are predominantly used for the head staves. Once chosen, the trees are cut to the desired length and split into quarters. It is imperative that the planks are uniform in thickness and are cut parallel to the rays. Sapwood is removed, but the wood next to it is preferred.
Stave length, width, and thickness all depend on the desired barrel volume. This is important in determining the rate of maturation. The thinner the stave, the earlier the maturation. Once cut, the staves and head pieces are stacked together and seasoned in the open air. Natural seasoning can take up to three years. There is also the option to kiln drying, but it is generally thought that natural drying gives more of a pleasant, woody, vanilla character. Kiln drying lends itself to a more resinous characteristic. Since there is always a concern with microbiological contamination, it has become customary to combine both air and kiln drying. This tends to provide the most protection from the undesired fungal infection found in higher moisture content.
Did you ever think about how much was involved in making a wine barrel? Did you ever think about it from any product standpoint? When you go to the store and you pick up your favorite product there is so much behind the scenes prior to it hitting the shelves that most people don’t even consider. The research and development, the scaling up of the product, the sensory analysis, the microbial analysis (my favorite, since that is what I did.) Let’s not forget the package design and the product placement. Did you know that the products at eye level in the store cost the company more than lower level shelves. Companies pay the stores to place their products. The wine barrel is an amazing product, and it takes a lot of “behind the scenes” to get it to the wine maker. In my next installment, I will discuss the barrel’s assembly process.