27 Mar The Journey of a Barrel
When it comes to winemaking, after grapes, oak is an important (and expensive) component of many wines, having a crucial impact on the quality and final outcome. Last year, our winemaker Stephanie Wiid, was invited by our barrel suppliers, Tonnellerie Quintessence, to France, to follow the journey of how a barrel is made. Today, we share the tale – all the way from the forests in Darney to the cooperage, our cellar and finally the cheese boards we sell right here in the deli section.
Barrels are made out of oak, so the best place to begin is in the oak forest! France is the largest source of European Oak, and that’s exactly where Steph went – to a large oak forest in Darney within the North East of France. Here, the trees range from 160 to 250 years old (some with bullet holes from World War 1) and are selectively harvested. Traditionally, oak has been used for wine barrels, as opposed to other wood, because it is stronger, denser and contains natural compounds which help improve the quality, ageability and flavour of the wine. The sustainability of these forests is incredibly important worldwide, and in France, there is a certification called the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), ensuring the correct management of these ancient trees. It’s safe to say that every last bit of the tree gets used, and they only cut down as much as the forest can afford to lose.
When a block of trees is ready, a wood specialist arrives to assess the quality, and then different coopers from cooperages (the people who make the barrels) bid on the block. Only the highest quality wood can be used for barrel-making, which is generally the straightest part of the tree with the narrowest grain. However, the rest of the tree also gets put to use, with the top part often going to carpentry, while off cuts can be used for firewood. Once selected, the oak tree gets split and turned into staves. The staves are then laid out to air dry for 18 to 36 months to allow the wood to properly ‘season’. Much like braai wood, the seasoning means the wood literally needs to get affected by the seasons – through rain, and snow and sunshine – allowing it to lose that ‘greenness’.
With the wood now ready, it’s time for the cooper to get to work. The shape is everything when it comes to barrel making, as it needs to be watertight without the aid of glue. Once made, the fun part begins! According to preference, the barrels gets toasted over a fire. Toasting is a process of singeing the inside of the wine barrel to achieve different oak flavour in the wine, and helps transform the tannins so they can soften and mature the wine. Toasting can be light, medium or heavy or anything in-between depending on what the winemaker wants. For example, for our Petite Sirah (which is a wine with heavier tannins), we prefer to use barrels that have undergone short, hot toasting, as the wine can handle a lot more wood than something lighter like a Grenache.
When reflecting on her experience, Steph says:
“As a winemaker, this was a truly valuable experience. There are so many similarities between wine and barrel making – from the terroir and the climate to the involvement of the human hand. It really gave me a larger appreciation for every element of the whole winemaking industry and how the process affects the quality – you can understand why barrels cost as much as they do!”
Even once our barrels are used several times and are no longer usable, we sell them on to our friend Kiewiet, who has ingeniously started recycling used barrels to make beautiful wooden cheese boards, sold in our Tasting Room. The barrels live on perpetually.