In the 13th century, the Celts arrived in Burgundy, France. They specialized in working with all the materials of the day that included wood, stone, iron, and clay. After much experimenting with wood, they realized that it could be bent using steam and heat.
The Celts then took this idea and used it in building wooden containers. It was a vast improvement on anything else which they were using. Wood is much lighter than other materials and can be fit to any size. With this came the evolution of the wooden wine barrel. Oak wine barrels are made by a ‘cooper’. This word originates from the Latin word “cupa”, or vat.
History states that during Napoleon’s reign over France he planted numerous beautiful oak forests. This had been done to ensure that there would always be enough timber to build boats.
Over the years, boats began to be made out of other, stronger materials and the oak forests were no longer needed for timber. Through experimentation, winemakers found that aging their wines in French oak enhanced the wine with additions of vanilla and other overtones.
Cooper’s now are usually only in charge of constructing the barrel. French oak is argued by most as the superior oak in winemaking, better than American and English oak. It is also at least twice the price. The French experts will also match the oak from particular forests with wines to produce the best product.
A wine barrel is made up of staves, which run vertically throughout the barrel, molding it into a cylinder. These are held in place by hoops or rings, usually made of galvanized steel.
Depending on the type of barrel there are 6-8 hoops. Most wine barrels weigh approximately 100-110 pounds.
Dimensions vary from barrel to barrel – a result of their being hand crafted. The most common types of oak barrel are the Bordeaux Barrel and the Burgundy Barrel.
TYPES OF WOOD USED FOR WINE BARRELS
The best barrels in the world come from the famed forests of France. There are five major forests the white oak comes from, and you may even see the forest stamped on the barrel. They are Allier, Nevers, Limousin, Trancais, and Vosges. Each forest imparts certain characteristics to the wood.
SELECTION AND PREPARATION OF THE WOOD
Cooperage experts hand select the best oak wood for use in the manufacturing of wine barrels and casks. This selection is extremely important because it essentially determines the quality of the finished product. Wood is selected based on many criteria, including tree shape and growing conditions. These factors determine the textural variety of wood fibers, the fineness of grain, and tannin content. Tight grain and fine tannin content are found only in the best wood.
Most cooperages tend to make wine barrels from white oak. The large thick rays of the wood give white oak extra toughness and bendability, while making it relatively stable during dry shrinkage and wet swelling.
Logs must be hand split to preserve wood grain without breaking veins. The logs are then quartered to obtain the wood used for the barrel staves. After splitting and planing, the stave wood is stored in tiers and exposed to air and water as the wood is naturally aged by weather. Through exposure to the elements, the wood is purged of impurities, undesirable odors, and harsher tannins that might overpower the flavor of the wine. This aging process takes several years.
After aging, the stave lumber is cut to proper length, tapered at each end, beveled, planed on the outside, and slightly hollowed on the inside. After being inspected, they are given to the cooper for assembly.
TURNING RARE BARRELS INTO HISTORY
A PIECE OF WINEMAKING HISTORY: 9′ in diameter, almost 9′ in length, weighing approx. 2,500 lbs.
Hand crafted in Europe and shipped to a US brewery in the early 1900s; this 3,760-gallon wine barrel was used until the prohibition of alcohol in 1920. The barrel remained undiscovered until 2011 when it was found by the Rocky Mountain Barrel Company. After nearly 100 years in hiding, this beautiful and rare giant of winemaking history has remained extremely well preserved. The original wood remains in the highest antique condition.
When faced with such an enormous and beautiful piece of oak, the only question left was what now?
Excited by the task in front of us, the RMBC team spent countless hours of careful consideration before making a final decision. The barrel has now been converted into a one-of-a-kind walk-in wine cave. This gorgeous wine cave includes the following features:
- French Red Oak staircase racking
- Floor track lighting with dimmers
- Steel-forged rack & cradle with locking wheels
- A custom-smoke plexiglass with tube lighted base
- 144 bottle capacity
Barrels are not just for aging spirits or beer. There are so many diverse ways our used wine barrels can be put to use in your home or business. With hundreds of customers coming from the world over, here are some of the coolest ways our barrels have been transformed. Past customers have transformed our barrels into everything from patio furniture to meat smokers to wine racks. Check out our beyond the barrel section for more ideas on how our barrels can serve your needs!