The History of Oak Barrels
Have you ever thought about why wine is stored in barrels? The image of an oak barrel has become synonymous with wine. Witnessing a barrel image evokes nostalgic feelings even though many people do not realize the developments leading to the past and modern usage of barrels for various purposes, especially in the wine industry. Now, if you have never thought of why wine is particularly stored in barrels, let us take you through a brief history of its evolution to this stage.
The use of barrels dates back more than 10000 years. Some studies indicate that barrels were not only exclusively utilized for wine storage but also for the transportation and storage of other many products and materials.
According to Herodotus, barrels were preferred to other storage vessels due to their sturdy nature and longevity. However, nobody knows exactly who invented the barrel. The earliest records indicate the Spanish Celts as the first people to make them after they accrued boatmaking techniques.
Some historians reveal that the Romans adopted barrels as storage vessels in 350BC and employed them in wine storage and aging. By the time the Roman Empire was vanishing, the use of barrels was a common phenomenon. Initially, different types of wood were utilized in making these barrels, but eventually, oak transcended all the other options.
Why are oak barrels used in wine storage?
Barrels made from oak trees offered many additional advantages that set them apart from other types of wood. For instance, when the wine is pressed from grapes, it is not yet ready but continues to be refined through a seamless filtering process inside the barrel.
Oak barrels have some specific characteristics that allow efficient refinement of wine. Their watertight feature makes oak wood suitable and preferable to other types of wood such as pine, acacia, redwood, and chestnut. Besides, oak wood contains chemicals like lignin, lactones, hemicellulose, tannins, tyloses, and vanillin.
When the wine is poured into a barrel, these chemicals interact with the wine influencing its taste and appearance. In case you do not know, these little details fundamentally matter when it comes to wine production. Moreover, oak wood also allows water and air to exit, classifying the wine. Oak barrels, therefore, act as additives, enhancers, and filters. Although the use of oak started in Europe and in the old world, and most of the Oak used by the wine industry is French, it’s worth mentioning that as the wine industry in the US progressed, the usage of American oak started to rise.
American Oak Barrels
The use of American oak barrels originated in the 1850s as the wine industry started flourishing. When grape production increased in the US, the demand for barrels to store wine also increased accordingly. Besides, the usage of barrels for wine aging has become prevalent across the world.
As early as the 1900s, barrels were employed to store and age alcoholic beverages. Despite its commonality, American wineries used barrels made from redwood mostly, and the use of American oak barrels was still limited.
American oak is dense and cheaper compared to its French counterpart. However, American oak barrels were not popular in the 20th century. They were initially manufactured for the bourbon industry. Besides, most vintners preferred French barrels as they were regarded as the best in making the finest wines. Likewise, their pocket-friendly characteristic made some wineries consider their utilization. American oak barrels’ also use faced other challenges, including prohibition in 1920.
Why did vintners start using American oak barrels?
The use of American oak barrels took a turn in the 1960s and 1970s when many vintners started using these barrels for wine storage and aging. Most modern wineries relying on American oak barrels devote their use to André Tchelistcheff, a Russian-born American winemaker who came to California in 1938.
He had arrived in California at the time the wine industry was reeling from the effects of the Prohibition Era. When he introduced American barrels, his impact was immediate and became influential in Napa Valley and California.
Primarily, Tchelistcheff was invited to America by Georges de Latour to renovate and revive Beaulieu’s vineyard and its wine production. During the process, he was able to introduce American oak barrels to the American wine industry. Some of the renovations included new grape pressing technology and the use of American oak barrels to age wine.
He also popularized its use in the modern American wine industry. However, the transition from French to American oak barrels was not very smooth. Nonetheless, some wineries were forced to use American oak barrels due to the shipping challenges of French oak barrels.
American oak barrels have since been used to make some iconic wines. Furthermore, they continue to be used for wine storage and aging in Napa Valley. These barrels are cheap and offer an exclusive taste to some wines hence standing out from other barrels.
However, modern-day winemakers prefer having a mixture of tastes and thus mix American oak barrels with others, such as French oak or just use stainless steel vats. Similarly, the American coopers have also embraced some French techniques in making the barrels to improve wines aged in these barrels. Finally, the American oak is exported to many other countries that prefer American oak over French oak. For example, there’s significant use of American oak in the Spanish Rioja region.
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This Day in Wine History
29 August 1939 – On this day, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act in the US was enacted. The Act mandated the aging of anything labeled as ‘bourbon’ in new oak. Consequently, the use of barrels increased in America, although not for the wine industry. Many wineries continued to use large format vessels to age their wine.
However, they gradually started buying barrels from the bourbon industry for aging. This transition was slow initially, but it rapidly rose in the 1960s and 1970s. Simultaneously, American oak barrels received recognition, and their use in the wine industry increased.
7 December 1901 – On this day, André Tchelistcheff was born in Moscow, Russia. Tchelistcheff was a well-known figure in the post-prohibition American wine industry. He contributed to modern American wine and was referred to as the “dean of American winemakers.”
André Tchelistcheff learned various techniques on vineyard cultivation and winemaking in Czechoslovakia and France. He shifted to California in 1938 to manage Georges de Latour’s Beaulieu Vineyard. Subsequently, he shaped some of Napa Valley’s iconic wines. He also inspired other wine icons, including Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Joel Aiken, Rick Sayre, and Rob Davis.
Tchelistcheff transformed the Beaulieu vineyard into its old wine production ways after he was appointed vice president of the vineyard. Besides, he helped other growers and winemakers in Napa Valley improve their wine production techniques by teaching them wine sanitation and fermentation methods. His contributions laid the foundation for California’s modern wine industry.
21 November 1799 – On this day, the first commercial vineyard and winery in the United States of America were established in Kentucky by the Kentucky General Assembly. These vineyards and wineries were founded by Jean-Jacques Dufour on 5 November 1998. Interestingly, Kentucky is synonymous with Tobacco and bourbon today, but it is credited for being the home to America’s first commercial winery and vineyard.
Gradually, grape farming and wine production flourished in Kentucky, making it the third-largest wine-producing state by the mid-19th century. However, the American Civil War (1861-1865) destroyed vineyards and the industry.
After the war, Kentucky residents resorted to tobacco farming, motivated by America’s growing anti-alcoholic drinks wave. Consequently, Kentucky was a strong supporter of prohibition. Despite all these factors, the state of Kentucky remains the host of the first commercial winery and vineyard in the United States of America.
Want to read more about the history of wine? Try reading these books!
 Tyrell’s Wines, “Wine Education with Scott Richardson: The History of the Oak Barrel,” Tyrrell’s, January 12, 2020, https://tyrrells.com.au/wine-education-with-scott-richardson-the-history-of-the-oak-barrel/.
 Dan Berger, “American Oak: Casks of Character,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1993, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-10-28-fo-50368-story.html.
 Beaulieu Vineyard, “André Tchelistcheff – the Maestro,” www.bvwines.com, 2022, https://www.bvwines.com/en/the-maestro.html.
 Kelli White, “The Evolution of American Oak,” SevenFifty Daily, September 22, 2017, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/the-evolution-of-american-oak/.
 Susan Richards, “History of the Kentucky Wine Industry,” Recette Magazine, August 22, 2021, https://blog.suvie.com/history-of-the-kentucky-wine-industry/.