So far, I’ve had opportunity to visit two barrel making operations (cooperages) in the Bordeaux area, of which there are dozens. Depending on the style of red wine, after fermentation is complete, wines are often aged in oak barrels. In some cases, such as in Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Burgundy), white wines are both fermented and aged in oak barrels. Barrels here are almost always made from “French oak”, which comes from managed oak forests in France. Barrels in the U.S. can also be made from “American oak”, which is a different species of oak altogether. The different types of oak have different effects on flavors imparted to the wine during aging. French oak tends to be tighter grained (slower growing) than American oak, with the latter imparting slightly stronger flavors. It get’s even more involved when you consider other factors, such as what part of the tree the wood comes from, whether the trees came from northern vs. southern forests, etc… but I’ll spare you.
The process begins with the slicing of the tree lengthwise into pie shaped pieces about 4 feet long. Only the bottom section of the tree is used, with the remainder of the tree being used for railroad ties (a major secondary product for these businesses). From each of the pie shaped pieces two “staves” (slats) can then be cut. These staves are then stacked and laid outside to dry and weather for two to three years (much like firewood). Once they are seasoned, the staves are run through a series of milling operations to create the special curved shape needed to create a round barrel with curved sides. Finished staves randomly vary in width (being about 3 to 4 inches at their widest point in the middle).
The newly milled staves are first sorted for imperfections and then organized into “flats”; selecting just the right combination of different stave widths to give the desired diameter of the barrel. Then each flat is assembled into a “rose”, pulled tight with a winch and banded at one end. Both of these steps are a bit of a puzzle for the workers and it was interesting to watch how quickly they could organize everything. The staves used to create the “heads” of the barrels were also assembled into flats for subsequent assembly and further milling.
From there the rose gets heated over open fires to soften the staves and prepare them to be bent and squeezed to form the characteristic curved barrel shape. For red wine barrels this heating is done entirely over flames, which is also the first step in the “toasting” process. For white wine barrels, they are sometimes dipped in hot water first to pre-soften them, as not to spend as much time on the open flames. Depending on the specifications of the winery purchasing the barrels, they may want white wine barrels to be less toasted, as not to impart too much of that flavor to the wines. After the staves are softened and bent into shape, a temporary hoop is hammered on, and the barrel completes the desired level of toasting.
It was interesting to see just how physical this process was, and under pretty hot and noisy conditions. These are solid dudes with forearms like Popeye.
From there, the temporary bands holding together the freshly toasted barrels are loosened to allow the insertion of the head on either end. The barrels are then pressure tested for leaks on wobbly rollers, and later new shiny bands are installed before the barrels go on for final sanding. The final step has the barrel heads getting branded with a computerized laser to put on whatever markings are desired by the customer. The final step was to wrap the barrels for shipping all across the globe. We saw barrels going to far off places like South Africa, Argentina …and even California (Opus One no less)!
And after this last tour (…in true French fashion) there was a fine lunch!