When we need a bottle of fine wine, most of us know where to go. We probably have a certain “go to” for dinner parties, the bottle that always gets great reviews from guests. Before it was ever bottled, it’s likely that the wine you love spent some aging time in an oak barrel.
Finding out about the barrel making method is quite exciting. Coopering is a skill that’s attained over time, with a master cooper needing to understand each step, beginning to end. While it’s true that most barrel making resources today are largely (if not completely) machine operated, some businesses still aim to keep more traditional methods for the process.
If you’ve never ever seen how a barrel is made, you might wonder how they get the wood to bend to make the standard oval shape, or why a barrel is shelved a fire when it’s being constructed. It’s an intriguing process to learn about, and here’s a simple breakdown of how it’s done.
To begin with, the wood is milled and cut into staves. Each piece is generally wider in the center and tapered at the edges (as opposed to being blocky like a 2″ X4″). Once these staves are cut, they need time to age and treat a bit so that the flavor they impart to the wine is matured.
Once the staves are ready for use, they are outfitted around the inside of a metal ring, closely together at the top, and widening at the bottom (note: think about a teepee). The pieces at the top are also equalized and smoothed out to form a flat surface.
After the staves are matched around the top hoop, the barrel is placed over a fire at the wider end. The wood is moistened to prevent the barrel from catching fire, to create the smoky effect that allows flavor the barrel, and the combination of the moisture and heat makes the wood pliable.
Once pliable, the barrel is tightened at the base, gradually bringing the staves together at the bottom and making the round oval form in the middle. As the staves are generated, another hoop is placed at the base to hold them in effect and safeguard the shape.
Two bungholes are cut, opposite of each other, into the sides of the barrel, and the top and bottom of the barrel are cut and fitted in, using little metal levers to get them into the grooves, tight and snug.
Once that part is complete, the cosmetic finishing touches are all that’s left. The rings are eradicated, first one side, and then the other, to make the wood surface beautiful by sanding it down.
Once the barrel is sanded and smooth, final finishing hoops are established and the barrel maker’s symbol is stamped or etched into the bottom of the barrel. The barrel is wrapped in plastic, ready to be shipped to wherever it’s going.
It may sound simple, there are a lot of steps to go through and lots of manual labor in the process of getting a barrel from start to finish. See these two clips on YouTube if you’re interested in watching this process to see how it’s done. The first is a quick start-to-finish briefing, and the second is a longer documentary that lets you learn more about the process with commentary from a French cooper in Napa Valley.
If you want to expand your knowledge of growing grapes and enjoy tasting different varieties, call and schedule a wine tour with us today, and hey…. We can assure you that it won’t disappoint if you’ve never experienced this type of tour for yourself!