Although I am no John Radford, I’ve toured a few Iberian wineries in my day, and have always pondered if there was a sacred oak barrel cemetery for all those great wooden vats that have dedicated their lives to a wine’s evolution.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with how a wooden barrel is made, allow me to give you a very brief intro. Let’s call it “Wine Barrel Making 101”. A large slab of wood is delicately cut into staves (the pieces you see in the picture to the right) and allowed to season in the bare elements over the course of 10-36 months, which allows the tannins from the wood to slowly leach out onto the ground forming a dark, almost black, residue. Other coopers use a kiln to dry out their barrels, and although this process tends to be more efficient, it doesn’t provide the same softening and texture that the nature elements tend to give the wood.
After the seasoning process, the staves are traditionally held over an open pit fire, where the wood becomes malleable and easy to work with. This pliability permits the cooper to then bend the staves into their desired shape within two iron rings that are slide around both the top and the bottom of the barrel. And like seasoning, their are alternatives to making the wood malleable, such as steaming the wood, but this technique also loses the rich flavors that can be imparted to the wine from charred wood.
How long does a barrel last? This question must be presented to each winemaker, as only they can tell you how long or short of a time period they will keep each barrel, but typically, after 3-5 years, a barrel loses its desired flavors and is sent on to either make liquors such as brandy, or are sold off to various artisans or dealers.
As a wine lover, I have always dreamed of having a few barrels decorating my home. From shelves for our various wine books, or as gigantic pots filled with vines and flowers, the notion of having weathered barrels is enchanting. However, in my four years here in Spain, never once have I seen old barrel staves used in such a unique manner as they have done in Talca Chile.
Design Boom posted an article regarding a huge recycling effort in Maule Valley to reuse fifty French oak barrels in their local park. The “dead” barrels were crafted into tables, awnings and lounge chairs for locals to sit back and relax in a natural environment. Clean, efficient and highly sustainable, I’m all for it! Living in the heart of Catalunya, I would love to see our local parks filled with sculptures and lounging furniture made with proud barrels who have served their liquid brethren well!
What are some creative designs you have seen with old barrels? Any that you’ve done yourself?