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Journey to Harvest and Beyond …

Barrels (Part 1)


By Squire Fridell

Ever smelled the inside of a new wine barrel?

Nothing in the world smells better than the inside of a new wine barrel just off the boat from France! The moment I cut away the shrink-wrap, tap out the wooden bung, and stick my nose in the barrel, it is summertime and I am a fourth grader at Camp Wawayanda in New Jersey, cooking s’mores over a campfire. Smelling the charred wood, the essence of malted chocolate, toasted marshmallows, and graham crackers immediately puts a smile on my face. Wondrous! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

Before barrels, what were the early vessels that held wine?

Thousands of years ago, early humans needed some kind of container that would hold wine and transport it from one place to another. The vessels needed to be fairly airtight so the wine wouldn’t oxidize and spoil, plus they had to be strong enough to not easily break. These early winemakers also realized that whatever the containers were made of shouldn’t negatively interact with the wine, and the vessels should be able to be opened and resealed effectively.

In ancient Georgia (not our U.S. southern state), early winemakers solved the issues by creating large, beeswax-lined and hardened earthenware vessels that were called “kvervris” (say that word three times!). They were usually buried in the ground, which allowed the wine to stay cool. Archaeologists found remnants of these large “jugs,” dating back 6,000 years, that held up to thousands of liters of wine (3.7854 liters equals one gallon, so you can do the math). To this day, a few Italian wineries even use facsimiles of the ancient kvervris.

When humans began transporting wine by sea or land, the kvervris were simply too large and fragile, so someone invented the amphora “jug.” These were smaller, beeswax-lined ceramic containers made of fired clay, and they proved to be much sturdier. Each jug had two handles for carrying, and the base was pointed so the amphorae could be stuck upright in the ballast of a ship (sand) and wouldn’t tip over. (Clever folks!)

They were probably first developed by the ancient Egyptians, but the use of amphorae spread to Europe, quickly becoming the common wine vessel everywhere. This was especially true for the early Greeks and Romans. Archaeologists discovered an almost totally intact treasure trove of amphorae when the ancient city of Pompeii was unearthed, having been buried under six feet of Mount Vesuvius ash for over 1,000 years.

When were wooden barrels first used?

When the Romans conquered Gaul (modern-day France), they found that folks were transporting their wine not in amphorae, but in wooden barrels. Not only were the barrels much less fragile than amphorae, but they could hold more liquid and, as a big bonus, they were

round and could be rolled from one place to another.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, wrote about wooden barrels as early as 350 B.C. By the third century A.D., the transition of storing and transporting wine from amphorae to wooden barrels was complete, ending clay’s 5,500 years of being the preferred vessel.

In the beginning, the wood used was palm, but when the Romans discovered white oak (genus Quercus), which was abundant to Gaul, white oak became the norm. These white oak trees had a tighter grain and didn’t leak; the wood staves were straight as an arrow and could be easily bent into shape. To this day, French white oak ( Quercus petraea and Quercus rober, if you’re exacting about genus and species) is the most preferred (and expensive) tree sourced for making wine barrels.

Don’t we have white oak trees in America?

Yep. White oak ( Quercus) does grow abundantly in the Missouri area of our USA, but our trees are not the same species as the two in France. The genus and species of our white oak tree is Quercus alba.

Are they the same? Can you use them interchangeably?

Yes and no. The use of French or American oak is the decision of the winemaker. The much more costly French barrels ($900+/-) are made from white oak tree varieties grown in five carefully maintained forests in the center of France. The less-costly American barrels ($400+/-) are made from the white oak tree variety grown in the U.S. (Keep in mind that it costs a lot to ship a barrel from France.)

Aside from the increased cost, there are also other differences. The French wood has tighter grain than the American oak and creates more subtle flavors when interacting with the wine. It also delivers silky textures and offers a hint of exotic spices. The American barrels, with looser grain, tend to give off more intense, stronger hints of vanilla, cream soda, and coconut. Wineries might use a combination of both French and American oak barrels, but every winemaker I know swears by his/her choices of barrels and coopers.

Incidentally, “cooper” is the word for someone who crafts barrels, and a “cooperage” is the physical building where the barrels are built.

Are there different a sizes of wine barrels?

All over the world, there are a myriad of wooden barrel sizes that hold wine, ranging from a 41-liter (11-gallon) “firkin” to a 982-liter (250-gallon) “tun” (since wine weighs roughly 8.34 pounds to a gallon, this is the origin of the word “ton”). Very small barrels are usually used for home winemakers, and there are huge wooden barrels (usually used for storage) that can contain up to 30,000 liters (almost 8,000 gallons!)

The “standard”-sized wine barrel that we are accustomed to seeing when we visit local wineries is called a “barrique” … but there are even two different commonly used versions of this barrel. There is the slightly longer and slimmer barrel (225 liters or 59.4 gallons) used in Bordeaux and America, and the shorter and fatter barrel (228 liters or 60 gallons) common to Burgundy. (Why two barrels with less than a gallon difference? It beats me … you gotta ask the French.)

There are also larger, 265-liter barrels that we use at GlenLyon instead of barriques. (Why do we special order them? Because we have limited space and they hold 10 gallons more while taking up the same footprint.) We also purchase one new 500-liter French oak barrel called a “puncheon” each year (twice the volume at twice the cost!). Why a puncheon? We’ve found that the ratio of wine to wood offers a very nice degree of subtlety in our chardonnay.

Why are barrels toasted on the inside, and when did toasting become commonplace?

The Romans found that if their white oak staves were heated by fire, they could more easily bend the wood into shape. Soon they discovered an additional benefit — toasting the white oak imparted a new pleasant dimension to wine and tended to make it softer, smoother, more intriguing, and even better tasting.

I’m out of space already, so in my next article I’ll talk more about what barrels do when they interact with wine, our very meticulous cleaning and the reuse of wooden barrels, how we store our empty barrels between fillings, and some other tidbits about these magical and costly vessels.

Now it’s time for a glass of stainless-steelfermented, puncheon-aged, crisp and refreshing chardonnay! You should be here!

Remember the immortal words of William Shakespeare:“ Wine for my men and water for their horses!”

Squire Fridell is the winemaker, vineyard manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO, and janitor at GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines. Contact him at [email protected]


Journey to Harvest and Beyond …
Suzy and Squire Fridell sitting on wine barrels. Source: Squire Fridell


Journey to Harvest and Beyond …
Jeremy standing with puncheon 265. Photo by Squire Fridell


Journey to Harvest and Beyond …
Photo by Melania Mahoney