Barrels: Oak and Steel

by Tamra Bolton

Last week, I touched on the subject of wine barrels and the French oak vs. American oak debate.   The more I learned about barrels, the more fascinated I became.  The history of barrel-making or cooperage is an ancient one.  Records indicate that the craft of making barrels for shipping and storage has been around for over a thousand years. Palm-wood barrels of wine were shipped from Armenia to Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, according to the writings of Herodotus.  The European Celts shared their cooperage techniques with the early Romans who found that the wooden barrels were much more durable and easier to transport than their more breakable clay containers or amphorae.  In the medieval and Renaissance period, oak became the favored wood for making barrels because of its “tight pores, straight grain, and mild flavor”, which made it perfect for food and wine storage.  Using oak in winemaking became a tradition which traveled to South America, California, and South Africa with the European settlers, along with the skills of cooperage, or barrel-making.  Not every area where the immigrants settled however, had the right kind of oak trees, so many experimented with different types of wood.  In California today, “10,000 gallon redwood tanks from the 1800’s are still in use at the Wente Vineyards.” 

I was once privileged to watch a master stave maker at work.  It was a thing of beauty to see a piece of oak being whittled down and shaped using only hand tools, just as people have done for centuries.  Each stave has to be perfectly fitted and the metal rings have to be exactly the right size for each place on the barrel.  Watching the men tighten the staves and work together as a team to beat the metal rings into place made me appreciate the work behind crafting a wine barrel in a whole new way.

Many wineries have gone to stainless tanks to make their wine, forgoing the more time-consuming maintenance and cleaning of the wooden barrels, but one of my local winemakers is sold on the time-honored traditional method.  Pierre de Wet, owner of Kiepersol Estates Winery says, “Barrels are a very expensive part of the winemaking process.”  But, he believes that using them gives his wines the touch they need.  “American oak barrels are properly toasted and give us subtle desired flavors and the comfortable tannins that we want. In most cases, they are much more affordable than the imported barrels.”  Also de Wet says, “American oak has about 7x less tannins than French oak, but more intense vanilla wood sugars, and when toasted correctly, result in a more comfortable wine for our region.”  So, this brings me back to the old French vs. American oak debate…which is really better?  For vineyard owners like de Wet, it’s not just a matter of taste; it’s even bigger than that.  Pierre continues, “In the old days, the quality of French barrels were considered better, but today our American cooperages are making barrels as good as anyone in the world. We use American oak barrels because they are local. For us it is about survival of the local businesses and local first is our area in Texas – Texas and then America. We absolutely do everything in our power to buy competitive quality products Texas made or American made.”  I love that and I believe in supporting our American wineries.  So this week, make a trip to one of your local wineries and thank them for being a part of the community and show them your support by buying local!