Have you ever wondered why wine is stored in wooden barrels? And how are barrels are made waterproof? Wine barrels are a complicated subject with a long and interesting history. In ancient times wine was often stored in clay pots called amphoras, but slowly people started realizing the benefits of using wooden containers instead.
The History of Wooden Barrels
It is thought that the Gauls were the first to use wooden barrels to store their beer and other beverages. The Romans saw these barrels and quickly realized they were superior to their own clay vessels. For starters wood is much lighter than clay, making transportation easier. They also noticed that the wood imparted a unique flavor they enjoyed. Wood barrels continued to be used in the Middle Ages, especially in places like Bordeaux where shipping wine to other regions was common place.
Even in Roman times, people began to notice oak was the superior wood for barrel making. Oak is a soft wood, which makes it easier to shape into a vessel. Oak is also naturally more waterproof than many other wood types. Lastly, people noticed that oak gave a pleasant vanilla and spice taste to whatever beverage it contained. Throughout history oak has been the dominant wood used for barrel making.
While wooden barrels have been used throughout history, another industry was using a greater portion of the wood supply, the ship building industry. This was especially true during the 17th and 18th century when the majority of the wood supply was reserved for ship building, rather than barrel making. King Louis XIV even ordered the replanting of many oak forests so he could use the wood to expand his navy. Things continued like this until the 19th century when wooden boats started slowly being replaced with stronger metal boats. When the demand for wood decreased, it left a glut of wood in the market. While the price of wood dropped, the popularity of wooden wine barrels in wineries exploded.
Production of Wooden Barrels
The process of making an oak barrel is long and complex. It starts with the wood being cut into staves, or long planks. These staves are left to season and dry, a process that can take up to three years. Next, the barrels are formed and the interior is toasted over a fire. The toasting is what allows many of the oak flavors to transfer to the wine. The metal hoops are then placed around the barrel, securing the wood in place. Finally the outside is sanded down, and the barrel is ready for wine. These barrels can be used for many years; as the barrel ages the wine will receive less and less flavor from the oak.
Fun Fact: In England in 1615, James I realized that oak was a rare commodity and forbade the use of wood as a heat source in the process of glassmaking. Glass makers turned to coal for their heat source, which made stronger glass and eventually led to how wine bottles are made and used today.