The use of oak in winemaking is a tradition, as the most successful means of storage and transport, and to influence the taste of the wine. It is the later role that modern winemakers incorporate into the craft of winemaking.
Coopering is described by Kilby in “The Cooper and His Trade” as an ancient trade. It developed over a long period and by the first century BC barrels were in use for wines, beer, milk, butter, and water. The barrel involves the principle of the double arch, creating immense strength; it is in itself a wheel and a means of movement, and not easily damaged. Its advantages over ceramic pots and urns and animal skins are obvious, and it rapidly superseded these utensils. The techniques of coopering, along with the specialised iron tools, were passed down through families and tribes, and in medieval times trade guilds developed comprising masters, journeymen, and apprentices.
The Romans, great wine drinkers, originally preferred clay amphorae to vessels made from their local woods, which tainted their wine. Over time the properties of oak sourced from northern regions of Europe were realised and this wood became prevalent. The vessels produced by coopers were widely used both as barrels and in the household. The need to accurately measure liquid volumes lead to the development of standards and legislation in Tudor times. This raised the status of coopers and all coopers subsequently branded their casks.
Oak barrels have been made in a wide range of sizes – traditionally from very small (firkins 9 gallons) to very large (ovals up to 1200 gallons and pyramids over 5000 gallons). The names given to different size barrels are intriguing. Butts, puncheons, hogsheads, pipes, octaves, kilderkins, and quarters. At Faber we use predominantly hogsheads (70 gallons), the origins of the name can only be guessed at!
Oak does two things to wine – it flavours it and allows it to mature. The flavours imparted to the wine are a combination of chemicals either naturally present in the oak, or developed during the heating of the staves when the barrel is coopered. The size of the barrel determines the ratio of wine volume to the oak surface. So it is important that we select not just the source of our oak, but the seasoning conditions, the coopering techniques, and the size of the barrel. Inside the barrel a vacuum is formed and there is a transfer of oxygen into the barrel and alcohol and water out of the barrel. This, and the interaction with chemicals leached from the oak, results in the slow change in the chemistry of the wine leading to a softening and integration of flavours which we describe as “maturation”
No wood no good is the well known saying of John Glaetzer – long time Wolf Blass red winemaker and a legend in the wine industry. We don’t subscribe to Glaetzer’s theory at Faber. Our use and selection of oak is all about style – the style of wine we are aiming to make. The oak must complement and enhance the flavour, not dominate it. More about this in future newsletters.