1- How to choose an oak barrel

Each winemaker chooses whether or not to use the oak barrels, depending on the quality of the wine being made. As barrels represent a significant cost, one might have the tendency to reserve this type of investment for the best cuvées / products.

However, the essential quality of an oak barrel is to allow highly qualitative micro-oxygenation. It’s these slow exchanges with the exterior air that enhance the wine being made.

Now the more a barrel has been used, the more its wood pores get blocked because of the tartaric acids, the tannin and the anthocyanins.

A barrel that has received several wines hence becomes a mere container, and does not play a primary role in winemaking.

News barrels guarantee a better hygiene

On top of that, extra care must be given to used barrels, for hygiene matters. The potential bacteria or unwanted fermentation can result in wine alteration.

Hence, the “new oak” does not reflect a will to bring an “oaky” taste to the wine, it is quite the contrary. The new oak avoids the drawbacks of a barrel that would not let its content breathe, or that would transmit some undesirable tastes. The key idea is to respect the wine.

As the adage says: “the objective of a good winemaker is to use as much new oak as he can, without anyone noticing it”. New oak aims for elegance.

And our cooper advice and know-how actually guarantees constant and delicate equilibrium that suits the finesse of great wines.

Ageing wine in new oak barrels is not a fad

Therefore the new oak obsession is not a fad. As a proof, let’s see what a vineyard owner was writing, as from as early on as  the 19th century:

When we harvest fine wines, the value of these products is such that we always put them into new barrels. (…) We understand that old barrels might not have a frank taste, (as it) is out of doubt that all the bad ferments must remain in old barrels.

These sentiments are quoted by Louis Latour, a famous domaine owner from Burgundy who adds  his own remarks:

For all the winemakers, the superiority of the new barrel is obvious, if only because its first use does not require any artifice.

Source : Louis Latour, Vins de Bourgogne, le Parcours de la Qualité, p. 732.

Aromas, precision and micro-oxygenation: the advantages of ageing  wine in new barrels

To summarise, oxygenation and hygiene are the essential criteria that incite winemakers to use new barrels, along with the perfect mastering of the aromas that the oak brings, thanks to the art of the cooper who can thus produce tailor-made barrels, which are perfectly adjusted to the particular needs.

Choosing your barrel toasting is a crucial point in the winemaking process. We call it “aromatic cooking” or bousinage in French. It differs from the step when the barrel is heated to bend its staves, during the assembling.

Winemakers and oenologists typically ask for multiple adjustments, year after year, depending on the vintage and their objectives. Picking the toasting of an oak barrel is  a constantly moving art.

Toasting of the barrels depends on the wine and its winemaker

The toasting depends on the desired  taste and structure, but also on the variety of grapes that are used, as well as on the general winemaking conditions.

A white wine will of course not react like a red one. In a more specific way, a chardonnay will not have the same exigencies, depending on its terroir. For example, you might not choose the same toasting, if you are dealing with a chardonnay from Chablis and another from South Africa.

As coopers, we work hand in hand with you to meet your specific needs and share our expertise. Each case is particular: the making of a great wine does not follow a recipe as precise as the one for an industrial soda.

Barrels toasting: the cooper’s secret

Beyond the terroir of the wood and the craftsmanship  that the cooper deploys to make a barrel, the toasting reflects his core  “manufacturing secret”. At this peculiar step, the cooper brings his unique touch.

Our craftsmen rely on their past experiences, but also on their pure feeling, thanks to their eyesight, touch and smell. Just like for the wine that it’s about to receive, the barrel has an olfactory truth that engages all the senses.

Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to discuss this matter more precisely.

The wood that we use to make our oak barrels exclusively comes from French forests, particularly from the Châtillonnais Parc, situated in Burgundy, mecca of cooperage.

The 2000 years of history of the barrel has demonstrated that forests from our French regions were the most able to produce an excellent raw material for cooperage. For centuries, our country has managed its wood sector with an exceptional vision and seriousness.

A forestry perfect for oak barrels

The French State has been supervising forestry for almost 1000 years. As early as the 17th century, Colbert’s order on “Water & Forests” restricted and protected the production of oak, this lord of the woods that grows so slowly.

This very long term strategy is essential for the production of good staves because oaks need to be between 180 and 250 years old. This explains the unique position that France holds in the cooperage sector.

In the 17th century, the objective of the state was to meet the needs of shipbuilding. But now, cooperage is the number one industry when it comes to oak demand:

A guaranteed quality for your oak barrels

100% french oak wood guarantees a constant quality. Often imitated but never duplicated; as seductive as the Eastern or American oak supplies can look, they do not match the same requirements level.

When it comes to great winemaking, French oak is the ultimate reference. This is why our cooperage attracts wine and spirits producers from all over the world: 70% of our barrels get exported. Generally speaking, France provides 75% of the global demand in oak barrels.

Nowadays, these three terms – barrel, cask or keg are considered to be synonyms.

Historically, each of these words had different meanings, depending on the regions and countries. However, the size specificity has disappeared through the last centuries.

In French, there are also different terms, such as tonneau, fût or barrique. In Burgundy, we even use another word : the pièce, whereas in Bordeaux, winemakers talk about their barriques, and there is actually a 3 liter  difference between these two kinds of barrels!

For more information, see our FAQ dedicated to the different barrel sizes.

In France, there has been as many barrel sizes as regions. From one valley to the other, the standard could change. The unit of measurement could sometimes keep the same name but its value would change.

For history records, here is what Fernand Braudel wrote in his masterpiece, The Identity of France (Arthaud-Flammarion, p.28) :

This extravagant diversity of measures was a nightmare for the administrations. “Could we give one and single size to wine barrels?”  the intendant from the Poitou would ask, in 1684. Absurd, as he answers by quoting a staggering multitude of  barrels types, for which the names and capacities vary from place to place, and are used concurrently, without even mentioning the barrels from the Berry, the Limousin, the Bordelais and other places, also present on the Poitou markets. It’s like trying to square the circle.

To this day, a feuillette from Chablis contains 132 liters whereas in Mâcon, it will be 112… These variations reflect the French and European culture mosaic from which the barrel is issued.

However, the standard became the pièce, which corresponds to 228 liters in Burgundy and 225 liters in Bordeaux. This basic unit can be divided or multiplied to form other barrel sizes.

As in example, in Burgundy, we typically have:

  • Ratio ¼ : the quartaut, 57 L
  • Ratio ½ : the feuillette, 114 ou 132 L
  • Ratio 1 : the pièce, 228 L
  • Ratio 2 : the queue, 456 L

2- Buying oak barrels

The cost of an oak barrel can vary on a one to one hundred scale: an old cask can cost much less than $100 whereas a new French oak barrel can worth up to several thousand dollars, depending on the size, the origin of the wood, etc.

Beyond the age and the number of wines that a barrel has received, the type of wood grain (its terroir) and the quality of the cooper’s work also influence the price of a barrel.

Note that the value of a new barrel will always be much higher for two principle reasons:

1- The high cost of qualified craftsmen and raw materials: cutting down, cutting up before a two year seasoning minimum… The oak used for coopering is also among the best quality available on the market, but the different coopering operations cause an 80% loss! During this laborious process, highly qualified workers take the time to make it right. A lot of the work is 100% manual and constantly needs to be double-checked. All this adds up and has a cost.

2- New barrels guarantee an optimal hygiene, along with the slow oxygenation that great winemakers need. Hence, new oak barrels have always been highly demanded by the wine industry.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch, in order to learn about the price of a barrel that suits your needs.

Most of winemakers renew at least some part of their oak barrels every year. New barrels actually allow a better wine micro-oxygenation.

From time to time, our cooperage proposes second hand barrels that have been used for one or two wines. These barrels are checked in order to avoid bad surprises.

Before buying a used oak barrel, you need to assess if it has been correctly maintained, with the regular use of sulfur fuse. A cask should also not stay empty for too long, as the wood will change its shape and leaks may appear.

If you buy a used barrel to make wine, you should always rely on an expert or have enough knowledge yourself, in order to assess the quality and potential problems of the cask.

To find out if we have used barrels in stock, please contact us.

We propose you a large range of different French barrel sizes, from the feuillette to the Burgundy or Bordeaux pièce to the queue.

Here is a list of the different standard barrels that our cooperage make :

  • Feuillette (114 liters)
  • Bordeaux Barrique (225 liters & 22mm or  27mm thickness)
  • Burgundy Pièce (228 liters)
  • 260 liters barrel
  • 300 liters barrel (Muid)
  • 320 liters “cigare”
  • 350 liters barrel
  • 400 litres barrel (Douil)
  • 500 liters barrel (Botta)
  • 600 liters barrel (Fass)

If you have specific demands or needs, please get in touch.

3- Using oak barrels

Just like for all the wines and spirits that it contains, the barrel is a living material: the wood breathes and reacts to its environment. Casks leave our cooperage with an optimal hygrometry rate, but transport can cause certain variations.

Consequently, here are two methods of water filling that we recommend for your barrels, when you put wine in them for the first time.

At each step, you will be able to verify the watertightness of your cask. If a leakage appears, please contact us.

The following instructions are based on the basic size of a barrel: pièce or barrique of 225-228 liters. If your cask is smaller or larger, please adapt the quantity of water accordingly.

Method 1: filling your barrel with hot water

  • Pour 20 liters of hot water (between 60 and 80°C / or 140-180°F) in the oak barrel and close it with the bung.
  • Let the barrel rest on one head. It will absorb the necessary quantity of water in 2 hours.
  • After these first 2 hours, flip the barrel over and position it on the other head. Let it rest for another 2 hours.
  • Once these 4 hours are over, remove the bung, empty and rinse with clean water before gently draining it.

Your oak barrel is now ready to receive your wine.

Method 2: filling your barrel with cold water

  • Pour 20 liters of cold water in your oak barrel and close it with the bung.
  • Let it rest on one head. It will absorb the necessary quantity of water in 12 hours.
  • After this period of time, flip it over and position it on the other head for another 12 hours.
  • Once these 24 hours are over, remove the bung, empty and gently rinse the barrel with clean water before gently draining it.

Your barrel is now ready to receive your wine.

If you have any difficulties, or if you have any question concerning the steps to follow, please get in touch.

Our oak barrels are designed to be used right after their reception. However, sometimes you  may not immediately put wine in it.

In this scenario, we advise you to keep your oak barrels in the plastic protection that we provided.

For storing, choose a place with high hygrometry: the humidity should be superior to 70% but without exceeding 90%.

The storing temperature of the barrels should not be superior to 22 Celsius degrees, which corresponds to 72 Fahrenheit.

Avoid drafts and other climatic variations that could cause the wood to modify its structure in a damaging way for the cask.

Ideally, your empty barrels will not be moved around too often.

An oak barrel is a living material that reacts to its environment. Thus, it is first very important to have stored your cask in good conditions.

Second, here are our tips to start using an oak barrel that was empty for >30 days:

  1. Pour 20 liters of cold water in the oak barrel and close it with the bung.
  2. Let the barrel rest on one head for 24 hours: it will absorb the necessary quantity of water.
  3. At the end of this period, flip the barrel over and position it on the other head, and make it rest for another 24 hours.
  4. Once these 48 hours are over, remove the bung and rinse generously with clean water. Drain it gently.

Your barrel is ready to receive your wine.

The barrel is “naturally” watertight as it was designed to be so, in order to receive liquids such as beer or wine. Hence, is a barrel leaks, it means there is a problem.

Here are a few advices to make an oak barrel watertight, depending on your situation:

  • If your leakage occurs on a new barrel, just putting water in it could make the barrel watertight again: the wood will swell and the porosity will disappear thanks to humidity.
  • On a second-hand barrel, leakages might require extra care. Wormholes, dislocated staves or porous knots are as many possible problems. Small leakages can be stuffed with épinettes which are some kind of pins that act as a toothpick that we would force into the leaking hole. Some more structural flaws might require serious work, such as replacing the problematic staves, etc.
  • Generally speaking, the Cavin cooperage does not repair old oak barrels. However, if bad transport conditions would alter one of our barrels, please contact us: our customer service will immediately take care of this issue.

The barrel is “naturally” watertight as it was designed to be so, in order to receive liquids surch as beer or wine. Hence, is a barrel leaks, it means there is a problem.

4- Aging wine in oak barrels

The 228 liters pièce bourguignonne and the 225 liters barrique bordelaise often appear as references, when it comes to high end winemaking. However, there are many different barrel sizes that can work very well for their particular context or terroir.

In Chablis, the white wines are often made and aged in 132 liters casks called feuillettes. Whereas many winemakers from south France might prefer bigger sizes such as 500 liters, in order to facilitate the manipulations and maintenance (e.g. fewer units to clean or move around…).

The type of wine, the grape variety, the winemaking style and traditions are as many factors that can influence the “perfect size” of an oak barrel. The Cavin cooperage chose to focus on a broad optimal range, with barrel capacities going from 114 to 600 liters.

The 57 liters quarteaut cask can of course be used as an extra container, but its small capacity does not always guarantee the best winemaking conditions. The oak surface to wine ratio can be too high, and cause wine aging to bring to much “wood” taste. The opposite is true for huge barrels, where oak intake will be too low and diluted. Hence, we do not make these.

The Cavin cooperage has great experience with many different terroirs, so do not hesitate to contact us if you have particular needs or questions.

 

5- Customer service and delivery

Our oak barrels are packed in a protective plastic before being sent. Delivering a barrel does not take several years, even for faraway countries. Hence, our barrels don’t have time to get damaged.

Moreover, note that barrels were originally created for transport, so moving around the globe isn’t that much of a problem.

However, in certain exceptional conditions, it can occur that a cask might  suffer from an extreme environment. Do not hesitate to contact us if you think that you are based in a high risk region (e.g. a lot of humidity & heat, etc.).