Wine has continuously become a part of human leisure and pleasure. History books and even biblical passages would indicate that wine has never missed any significant event in the past. It is used in time of peace and war, in celebration, and at times of sorrow. Through the years, wine has been the mirror of emotion. This is the reason why the production of thereof continue to be a flourishing enterprise. Wines vary in kind and effect. The kinds thereof differ from fruity to full bodied and the effect thereof range from subtle to strong. These differences arise from the way they are manufactured and preserved.
The value of the wine is dependent on the quality thereof. Normally, the expensive ones are those which have undergone proper aging and maturation. The materials that are used in order to preserve wine play an important role in the aging process thereof. The most significant material to such process is the wine barrel or the container which keeps the wine. In making wine barrels, there are several considerations that should be made. Among these is the type of wood that should be used, the age and thickness thereof, the cut that should be made, and the techniques used in bending the barrel.
Wine barrel makers prefer white oak wood in producing their merchandise. The white oak is specifically preferred because of its tight cooperage and subtle fragrance. The aroma generated from this type of wood plays an essential part in the maturation and aging of the wine as it adds flavor and intensity. According to Jackson (2008), the first step in making a wine barrel is to choose the right kind of white oak wood. The diameter thereof should range from 45 to 60 centimeters with an age of 100 to 150 years old. Older woods have higher quality since they have tighter grains and finer tannin contents as compared to younger woods.
The shape of the tree and the growing conditions are also taken into consideration because these factors determine the texture of the wood. After the tree has been determined, this is sawed and then cut into sections or bolts. Such sections are split into quarters and thereafter sawed into uniform thickness. The cuts are aligned along the radius so that they may have parallel rays. The portions which appear to be too narrow to produce the stave or headings are discarded and the wedge-shaped planks are removed as well.
In dividing the wood into portions, the French prefer splitting over sawing because it separates the wood along planes of vessel elongation. Sawing the wood may cut across irregular vessels and increase the permeability of the wood. The Americans, however, prefer to saw the staves instead of splitting them for convenience (Master Garden Products [MGP], 2008). The length, thickness as well as the width of the stave depends on the volume of the wine as well as the maturation desired. Thinner barrels have the tendency to accelerate the maturation. The standard size of staves is 2. centimeters thick and has the capacity of 225 liters (Jackson, 2008). As soon as the staves are cut and shaped based on the desired length and thickness, these are stacked up in order to season and dry. Traditionally, seasoning lasts for about three years. The stacking should be made in such a way that the air could proper circulate in order to avoid cracking. Yearly, the stacking of the woods is randomly changed to foster minimal variation in the quality of the wood. Aside from the way the woods are piled, the type of temperature is also considered.
Too much heat may affect the aroma or the vanilla like character of the wood. It could also affect the moisture content and trigger the development of fungi. The French usually follow the air drying process while the Americans prefer to kiln dry the wood. There are other manufacturers who combine air drying and kiln drying in order to preserve the quality of the wood (MGP, 2008). After drying the staves, they are inspected for cracks, structural faults, knots and other irregularities. Once the needed staves are completed, they are assembled and shaved in preparation for raising.
In completing this procedure, the broad ends of the staves are tapered in order to give them their basic shape then the ends of the wood are chiseled both in the center and in the ends to facilitate the bending process. Subsequently, the staves are planed along the inner edge; such procedure requires mastery and skill because the difference in the angle of the stave. The curve of the stave is a significant part of the barrel because the strength thereof is derived from this part as the principle of double arch would indicate (Jackson, 2008). As soon as the staves are planed, the staves are placed together to form an upright circle.
Temporary hoops are used in order to facilitate the formation of a circle. The hoops are forced into the staves to curve and follow the circular outline. To better facilitate the process, the barrel is inverted and placed above an open fire to soften. Another mode of softening the wood is to steam the staves. After the woods soften, the staves are gradually pulled together using a windlass. The hoops are then positioned to make the curve shape. The staves are heated for another 10 to 15 minutes to release the tension which the bending caused. The staves are placed directly over fire with the top either closed with a metal cover or left open.
Heating with metal cover on requires more frequent moistening however, the heat it produces on the inner surface of the barrel is more uniform. The amount of heat infused to the staves determines the by-products released by the wood which later on affects the maturity of the wine. The heat may vary from light, medium to heavy. The by products or the chemicals released by the wood as a result of this process affect the quality of the wine (Jackson, 2008). After the toasting, the next step is the bending of the wood to form an arch and to tighten the union of the staves.
The ends of the staves are trimmed and a groove is cut into the stave to receive the barrel head. The barrel head are fit into the croze and the final hopping is made using a large mallet. Before the heads are fitted to the crozes, the latter are coated with wheat flour paste. As the barrel is finally completed, water is placed inside the barrel in order to test its permeability. Through this process, leaks and moisture caused by porous areas are detected. If the barrel passes this test, it is sanded and finished with the mark of the craftsman who made it.
Usually, the French method of making barrels is better followed because of the better effects that it gives to the flavor of the wine as compared to the American method. The latter adds strong porous flavor to the wine thereby affecting the required subtle quality thereof. The American method was not primarily created for wine but to store whisky. The French method is more adept for the fermentation and preservation of wine. More than just combining piles of wood, barrel making is a craft which requires talent. Failure to master the proper process will greatly have an impact on the quality of wine that is stored in it.