The Art and Craft of Making a Barrel
Barrel making is an art steeped into history and century-old tradition. While technology has improved the process, it still relies on the handiwork of artisans and craftsmen at every stage.
No two barrels are identical. Oak has been the wood of choice over time, as its wood is robust, hard and dense. The Williamsburg Winery favors the wood found in France, including the common oak or Quercus Pedunculata — its wide grain leads to the release of its tannins fairly quickly. Another variety, Quercus Sessiflora, is finer-grained, softer and less dense. This variety has milder tannins and is highly valued as a source of barrel wood.
Craftsmen called coopers make barrels from oak planks that have been air dried for up to three years. The staves must be smooth, free from splintering wood or other imperfections. The wood must be stacked with spacers and left in the open air, exposed to elements including rain, wind, cold and heat.
After the staves are appropriately seasoned, they will be shortened and trimmed. Finishing the staves is laborious and requires precise attention to detail. The barrel must be watertight, achieved with accurate construction as opposed to any type of glue or adhesive.
Assembly starts with the bung stave, slightly wider than the others as that’s where the bunghole is drilled so the barrel can be filled and emptied. The staves are arranged upright, held together by a metal collar or molding hoop. Both ends remain open so the unfinished barrel can be placed over a fire fueled by oak scraps.
What very much looks like a bonfire inside a barrel is referred to as singeing or toasting. The level of toastiness impacts the taste of the wine and helps develop flavors pleasing to the palette.
After toasting, the heads or bottoms are installed, and the Williamsburg Winery logo is embossed on top.
The quality of the barrel is of paramount importance in aging wine — wood origin and cooper control are important factors to ensuring the barrels harmonize with the wine. While the wine is in the barrels, an exchange of wood, wine and atmosphere occurs, and a light aspiration takes place through the pores of the wood. Winemakers regularly “top off” the barrel multiple times so that it remains full.
Standard oak barrels contain 60 gallons or 300 bottles of wine, while oversized ones called puncheons hold as much as 120 gallons.
The Williamsburg Winery recently began experimenting with wine aged in cognac barrels, which produces a pleasing aromatic. You can smell the difference in the 2019 Petite Fleur, aged for 14 months in used cognac barrels. Winemaker Matthew Meyer is experimenting with aging reds in cognac barrels, with the first release anticipated in 2022.