Cooperage: an ancient craft

access_time 2020 · 07 · 30

This is how the art of making barrels is called. A craft work that still resists in the wine world and, thanks to artisan hands, allows us to enjoy rounded wines and full of character.

Wood barrels are essential in wine production and have been part of their history for centuries. The ancient Romans and Egyptians started using them to transport and keep wine in good conditions, after realizing that the amphoras were fragile and hard to manage. They took the idea of the French, who also then started using oak barrels to ferment and age wines after discovering that wood would allow the wine to breath, adding flavours, complexity and softening the tannins.

From generation to generation

This is how since the Middle Age the cooperage was elevated to the art category. One that has been forged for centuries thanks to the master coopers, who have transmitted an in-depth knowledge from generation to generation. Many times, from fathers to sons. It is a craft that runs in families. To acquire that expertise, it’s needed to be an apprentice of a master with plenty of experience. You can’t learn it at the university, but it’s a purely craft trade that’s mastered with lots of practice. So the apprentices need to have the ability to look and reproduce with precision all what was learned, and many years may pass before they become a professional cooper who dominates exactly the barrel making technique.

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Ph: myswitzerland.com

A little miracle

Many don’t know that there is no adhesive or glue that joins the staves together. It’s a “little miracle” made by wood, without glue or nails. It’s made with only a hammer and pressure. A craft that, despite the mechanization of modern times, haven’t changed much over the years.

In the wine industry (but also in whiskey and Bourbon distilleries) wood barrels are used to give flavours and complexity. The master coopers have refined their process over the centuries, so many factors contribute to the type of flavours that wooden barrels will add to wines.

Basically, wine barrels are made with long pieces of wood called staves. Before being carefully shaped, these are seasoned (or dried) outdoors (and exposed to inclement weather) for two or three years to soften their green characteristics as the harsh tannins that could give some bitter taste to wine. In this way, wood will develop nicer flavours and aromas. Then the staves are cut at the same height because they are brought together inside two metal hoops that will hold them. The next step is to toast or char the barrel often done over an oakwood fire in the interior, so the heat helps to bend the staves, in conjunction with pressure from metal hoops giving shape to it. Then the lids are placed and the barrel is polished. Finally, and the most important part, it’s to check that there are no leaks. 

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Ph: Jens Fischer

Over the centuries, very little has changed. There has only been an improvement in the tools used by the master coopers and the hoops are made of metal instead of wood.

A contribution to wine

Without this ancient craft, wines wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of wood, a material that comes in different types and origins. For example, French oak gives more floral aromas than American oak. While Chilean raulí used to make pipas in the south of Chile, will give earthy and floral hints. Cedar, vanilla, coconut, toasted and even fruit notes can be collected from wood to infuse the wine, in addition to helping in the stabilization of the colour, the softness of the tannins and the protection with the exterior, although with an exchange (thanks to the porosity of the wood, the wine breathes within it).

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Ph: Demptos

But the lack of interest of the new generations for keeping this craft is a big threat for its continuity. Unfortunately, today cooperage is an endangered tradition, although there are some optimist masters who ensure that as long as there are wineries, there will be master coopers. On their honour, we invite you to toast with Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, aged for 17 months in French oak barrels that make this a red wine with silky tannins, great structure and subtle vanilla aromas.

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