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Barrel-making is an ancient craft, machines may help, but the skill, experience and judgment of the cooper is still essential. The two most common types of oak barrels used for winemaking are the American Oak and the French Oak barrel. The tighter grain French style barrels capture more of the natural oak character in the wine. The American barrels have less dense grain and let the wine breath easier.
The average wine barrel has a useful life expectancy of about five years. After that time, the barrel has imparted the flavorings of the oak into the wine. Barrels can be restored, by shaving away several layers from the inside of the staves and re-charring the wood, or adding inner stay oak slates. This can extend the life of a barrel up to ten years, however the results are not the same as with new wood. For that reason, after the initial life cycle of the barrel, most wineries purge their old stock. Often these barrels are cut in half and sold as planters - not a very fitting end for a work of craftsmanship.
French Oak was once (and still is by many) considered the most desirable wood for making wine barrels. Most French Oak comes from one or more of the forests planted in the days of Napoleon for ship building. Five of those forests are primarily used for wine barrel making. Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges forests produce woods with distinctive characteristics and winemakers select their barrels based on the desired effect for the finished wine.
Early experiments with American Oak were not successful as the oak had too much influence on the content of the barrels. At first, the problem was believed to be with the wood itself. Later it was discovered that the difficulties were caused by the way the wood was prepared and the barrel constructed. American Oak barrels have improved dramatically and usage is definitely on the rise. American barrels have lower labor costs and as they are relatively new, not having a long consistent history, they are substantially less expensive than the French barrels.
Combination Barrels are barrels made using imported woods. The French coopers making barrels from American Oak and American coopers making barrels from French Oak.
Visitors centre at Speyside Cooperage where you can watch skilled coopers at work.
Kelvin Cooperage - Our dedication to maintaining the highest level of quality and service is evident in the care taken at every step of the coopering process to ensure that every winemaker receives a highly crafted, subtly flavored, American oak wine barrel at an exceptional value.