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What are Wine Barrels?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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A wine barrel serves as an aging and storage device for wine. Typically made of wood, these barrels are capable of imparting characteristics to the wine, particularly affecting the flavor and color of the finished product. Wine barrels are typically made by skilled barrel-makers or “coopers” using wood crafting techniques perfected over the centuries.

Humans have a long history with the cultivation of wine. In ancient Greece, wine was carried and served in amphorae, ceramic vases that had spiritual as well as practical value. Alsong with the amphora are tales of ancient societies also using early forms of barrels. Unfortunately, due to the short life and natural deterioration of wine barrels, no artifacts from early use exist.

Wine barrels serve the contained wine in a variety of ways, all carefully monitored to benefit the wine. Since wood is porous, it allows some oxygen to mix with the wine, resulting in a softened drink that loses some of the bite and acidity of young wines. The wine can also be altered in flavor, depending on the composition and finishing process used on the barrel.

Most wine barrels go through a process called toasting after construction of the barrel is completed. In toasting, the inside of the wood is charred. The charring process will give wine certain flavor characteristics, and barrels can typically be ordered with different levels of toast. Depending on the type of grapes used in their wine, winemakers may prefer light, medium, or heavy toast barrels.

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Oak is the wood of choice for most wine barrels. Though other woods are occasionally used, very few alternatives provide the oxygenation or flavors that oak can. Among other types of lumber used to make wine barrels, acacia and chestnut wood are the most commonly used.

Wine barrels have a fairly short shelf life, most lasting for less then ten years. After this point, the barrel can still serve as a storage unit, but will not impart flavors to the wine and may increase in porousness. Shaving away inner layers of wood and re-toasting the barrel may extend the life somewhat, but more often old barrels are put to other uses, such as garden planters.

Depending on the holding capacity and the material used, the price of a barrel can vary somewhat. Barrels made from French oak are typically the most expensive and may cost over $1,000 US Dollars (USD) per barrel. Wine barrels from the United States are typically much cheaper, costing about half as much as a French oak barrel. Barrels are available to purchase from individual cooperages and many modern companies now operate websites for their products.

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