Wine Oak Barrels: the basics to know

Surely you have always asked yourself a thousand questions about the barrels: What is their origin? How are they formed? Are there different types and sizes? In this article, you will discover that and much more. Let’s get to it!

As we already told you in the article about Wine Bottles, the beginning of the barrels used to transport wine is located in Roman’s time, but in reality, the barrels have an earlier history.

Only one case is known (in the Mesopotamia region) where palm wood barrels were used to transport wine. We know this because Herod, a Roman Ancient King of Judea, recorded it in his writings back in the BC Era. However, this practice was lost seeing as the palm wood was very difficult to bend and the elaboration of the barrels was slow, not to mention expensive.

The barrel as a container to transport and to produce beer was invented by Celtic people located in Europe, in the central zone where it was cold, humid, and had a big quantity of forests. But there were Roman people who discovered an opportunity to transport the wine in a surer container than amphoras. Even the shape allowed them to roll them on the ground. Oak was the best type of wood for that; easy molding, plenty in Europe, and most importantly it was waterproof and kept the liquid to be transported intact.

It was also the Romans who began to realize that the wine after spending time stored in the barrels tasted better and was softer. Barrels provided new aromas that wine did not have before such as cinnamon, spices, or vanilla, from the characteristic toasting of the wood (we will explain what this is below).

Barrels were originally used as a form of transportation. It’s a delightful coincidence that they discovered that the wine improved after contact with the wood. Thus, they began to store wine in barrels to give it that special touch. .

Ready to learn more about the barrels? Let’s will start with:

The parts of a wine barrel:

  • Chime: The rim of the barrel from the croze to the top of the barrel staves.
  • Head: The round flat sections that form the top and bottom of a barrel.
  • Hoop: a circular iron band or ring for holding together the staves of a barrel.
  • Bunghole: A hole precisely drilled into the bung stave to exact specifications. Used for filling and emptying the barrel.
  • Bilge: The center of a barrel’s bulge.
  • Stave: Strips of wood placed edge to edge to form the sides of a barrel.
Wine Barrels Anatomy - Women's Wine Club

As we talked about before…

What is a wine barrel toast?

The toasting of the barrel is the burning of the staves to obtain elasticity in the wood and the ability to bend it. But the time that the barrel is in contact with the fire will finish its toasting and thus also the aromas and flavors of the wines. Winemakers choose the different toasts in relation to the wines they want to make.

Oak is the most widely used type of wood for making barrels.

You can see the different toasts and what they provide in this infographic:

Where does the oak come from?

The French oak was the one that began to be used first, by the Celts and then by the Romans. And although there are now other materials and other woods, oak is still the most widespread.

American and Canadian oak was used later, it has more open pores and the price is lower. Its origin dates back to the 50s of the last century, where California winemakers began to experiment instead of storing them in foudre, which was used at the time.

There is also the Hungarian oak, which is gaining more and more fans and, finally (and to a lesser extent) the oaks that come from Poland or Russia.

Where does the oak come from? - Women's Wine Club

Are there different sizes of wine barrels?

Yes, in the barrels there are also different sizes. Here we’ll lay out the most commonly used barrels and how they influence the wine:

  • Quarter Cask: 50L – 13 gals, generating a higher wood to liquid ratio. 
  • Barrique: 225L – 59 gals, standard barrel used for wine.
  • Butt: 500 L – 132 gals, tall and narrow with thick staves and a nice set of hips true to its name. Commonly used for sherry.
  • Tun: 982L – 250 gals, traditionally used for the fermentation. Designed to represent one perfect imperial ton of liquid.
Wine Barrels Sizes

Although the world of barrels can be much more extensive, with this article you will be able to understand a part of the history and the different types that can be found.

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