Men of Oak: Exploring the Ancient Art of Wine Barrel Making

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Published in Your Margaret River Region Magazine, November 23, 2018

If you’re anything like us, you spend a lot of time looking at vineyards, and drinking the resultant wine, but perhaps not so much thinking about what happens in between. What role do wine barrels really play? And what do people mean when they say that something tastes ‘oakey’?

Luckily, there are plenty of people in our region who care about this stuff, a lot. Cooper John Kingdon, from the Margaret River Cooperage explains that oak wood is predominantly used when making barrels to store wine, because it is both allows for breathability and a watertight seal. Then, of course, there is the fact that it also imparts unique desirable characteristics into the wine or spirit that it is in contact with (there’s that oaky flavor we keep hearing about). Like with grapes, even the smallest changes in environment can influence the properties of the tree’s wood.

“Barrels even from the same forest can vary in characteristics because of the micro-climates within”.

Chief Winemaker Ryan Aggiss from Aravina Estate in Yallingup agrees, saying that using quality oak barrels in the wine production process – as opposed to for example steel or high-density polyethylene tanks – provides “the most balanced, controlled and graceful way of aging wines of all styles and varieties”. While there are literally hundreds of different oak species around the world, the vast majority of modern wine barrels are made with either made of French common oak (Quercus robur), French white oak (Quercus petraea) or from American white oak (Quercus alba) or Quercus sessifloria, an Asian species that  widespread across Japan, Taiwan, and much of southeastern China. As Aggiss puts it, it’s a winning combination:

“Vitis and Quercus seem to work so well together, much like salt and pepper or sea and sun!”.

Aravina Estate source the new products exclusively from France, which are in turn built from wood harvested from selected forests. Given that it takes an oak tree anywhere between 80 to 150 years to reach the maturity level necessary for felling and harvesting, Aggiss stresses that it is important to support sustainable farming of the trees.

Respect for the craft is a sentiment echoed by Kingdon. “To work in this craft is such a privilege when you look at this vessel and shape that despite over time has not changed in centuries.”

While the Margaret River Cooperage does not produce new barrels from scratch (the wine industry here is still not large enough to justify the process, as the oak would all still needed to be shipped in anyway) they certainly have their work cut out for them. The cooperage’s main focus is on repurposing the barrels – re-coopering them and toasting them for use by smaller wineries. “A winery will finish using their barrels once they have extracted all the oak from that barrel into the wine, from then it becomes a holding vessel for maturation only. This is when I purchase the barrels and recooper them to obtain fresh oak and extend their life for either the wine or spirit industry”.

This process is not only ecological but also cost-effective especially for smaller businesses.  Sometimes, the barrels that pass through the cooperage will end up storing beer, or aging spirits such as whiskey and brandy.

The Margaret River Cooperage’s Instagram page is filled with dramatic shots of barrels filled with roaring flames. Kingdon explains that this process is called toasting and that various levels of toasting (light to heavy) have a very important impact on the flavor of the product in the barrel. “Different levels of charring influence the spirit in the barrel [so] this is where the skill of the winemaker or distiller is required to batch these barrels together to achieve their desired continued style.”

For producers as large as Aravina, after the barrels have reached the end of their five-year oak period, they are used for port production. “We never cut them in half for flower pots!” Aggiss jokes.

Indeed, ending up as a flower pot does not seem to be a fitting end for the product of such a noble tree and age-old craft.

HISTORY

The word "cooper" is derived from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German kūper 'cooper' from kūpe 'cask', which in turn comes from the Latin cupa 'tun, barrel'. Although the Latin-speaking Romans loved putting things in barrel-like amphorae, (including, according to legend the Athenian philosopher Diogenes who supposedly lived in one) theirs were probably made of clay, not wood. Wooden cooperage was probably a Celtic invention, built upon from the Viking skills of ship-building. Regardless of its origins, the skills of customs of the craft have changed little in the intervening centuries.