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For centuries now, oak barrels have been used to age wine, with a heavy lean toward the red variety. If you are not an oenophile, you will be surprised to hear that these barrels have not always been easy to make. They are made from very expensive wood, and the whole process has to be done right. There are different types of oak out there, and each adds a distinct flavor to the wine. For instance, American oak has a distinct flavor and texture, that rubs on to the wine in it. Similarly, French oak comes with its distinct set of qualities.

Hello, Mr. Cooper!

Did you know that a Cooper is a name given to the person trained to make barrels? Cooper is a Middle Low German term that simply means ‘barrel’. Coopers are highly trained individuals who rack up hundreds of hours in apprenticeship and real-world learning. A cooper’s shop is known as a cooperage.

Barrels have been here for a long time

The first mention of barrels in history books dates back to 2690 BC when open-ended varieties made an entrance into the scene in Egypt. They were not necessarily made for wines but came in handy for the transportation of many liquids. A few centuries later, during the Iron Age to be precise, more improved barrels made their entry into the scene. These were used to hold water, milk, wine, and oil. In the 1600s, explorers from Europe started catching on with regards to the potential benefits of oak barrels for wine storage. Around this time, trade in barrels became a mainstay as their advantages quickly became common knowledge.

Different oaks lend different qualities to wine

Oak isn’t simply oak. How a barrel ages wine depends on the oaks it is made from. Some oaks are grown in forests with a distinct set of conditions.  Some have a fine grain, while others are coarse. Some of this wood is dried in its own unique way, and this all leads to a cornucopia of tastes and textures. For example, newer oak lends strong flavors to wine, while older oak has to offer plenty of smooth textures. Oak can make wine toasty, sweet or spicy. It can also add accents such as coconut, chocolate, coffee, caramel and a lot more. If you have ever taken a sip of wine and felt the nutty, heavy or floaty feeling in your mouth, then this has to do with the type and quality of oak barrels it was aged in. European oak comes from Hungary, Slovenia, Russia, and many more locations. However, French oak is the most popular of all the oaks out of Europe. American oak on the other side comes from Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

There is a reason for the shape

Some people see oak barrels as cylinders, except for the fact that they have a bulge at the center. This design was adopted centuries ago and had use and transportation in mind. The shape allows barrels to e rolled for movement and storage. They also give the user the flexibility to change the barrel’s direction quite easily. On the technical side, the bulge in the middle provides additional room for aging, with the hollow allowing the flavors of the wine to come together in a union that brings out the sheer pedigree of the brew.

Oak barrels have a host of benefits

Oak barrels have flavor compounds such as clove, vanilla, smoke, and coconut. These add richness and taste to the wine. Indeed, 0ver 50 of the most expensive wine brands in the world have their wines stored in barrels at some point during aging. Additionally, the nature of the grains in an oak barrel, which are tightly stacked, allows for the slow penetration of oxygen into the wine. This process takes place over years, and this allows the drink to be smooth.  If the entry of oxygen into wine were uncontrolled, the taste of the final product would be very astringent. As the wine ages, some of the qualities of the wood in the barrels seep into its core, making for a great medley of ingredients and flavors. Finally, oak barrels provide an environment that allows the thriving of metabolic processes (malolactic fermentation comes to mind) that go a long way toward giving some wines they dreamy nature.

Oakwood is dried using different mechanisms

Before oak is used to make barrels, it is dried in two very specific ways, and both of these approaches have a different impact. Air drying has the effect of taking tannic astringency down while at the same time releasing vanillin into the wood. However, the process is known to take a long time to get done-up to two years. Kiln drying, on the other hand, takes a couple of weeks, but it only releases a small amount of high valued vanillin.

Your oak barrel might not be 100% watertight

Professional barrel makers only get a sense of achievement when their barrels are watertight. When you order a barrel online or make one, you will need to do one more thing to make it watertight; cure it. Curing an oak barrel is simply the process of soaking it in water for up to a week. This allows the staves in the wood to absorb water and swell, which seals and possible pockets of air.

Some wine evaporates from the barrel

You will hear constant banter from oenophiles, and in most of the cases, you will hear them fondly speak of ‘the angel’s share’. This is in reference to the 2-5% of the wine that evaporates from each barrel in a year. The smaller the barrel, the high the percentage of loss. Industry-standard barrels lose a lot less than home-distillers.

Oak barrels look a little primitive, even unnecessary, to the casual observer, but they are indeed the catalyst to great wine. They have been around for centuries now, and an improved understanding of how they make wine better has allowed companies and individuals to create conditions for the perfect forests, leading to perfect oak wood, perfect barrels and consequently, perfect vino.