Those working in wine have likely heard the terms ‘barrique’, ‘cask’, ‘foudre, and ‘barrel’ thrown around quite a bit – however, not all that’s made of wood is created equal. Despite sharing a similar raw material, each of these vessels is actually quite different, and knowing their unique traits and characteristics is key.
What is a barrel?
The most common wooden vessel in modern day winemaking is the traditional oak barrel, made from either French (Quercus robur) or American white (Quercus alba) oak. A barrel is constructed from several components: the head (the round ends which form the top and bottom of the barrel), staves (the strips of wood that form the sides of the barrel), and hoops (the metal parts that hold the staves together).
The hole used to fill and empty the barrel is called the bung hole, and the stopper used to close it is called the bung. Traditional bungs are generally made of wood, whereas modern versions are made with silicone or other materials.
Barrel sizes explained
There are a few different barrel sizes, each with slightly different capacities and named after the regions they originated from: Bordeaux (225L) – commonly referred to as a ‘barrique – Burgundy (228L), and Cognac (300L).
Winemakers looking for larger vessels will often use puncheons or demi-muids, which hold 500L and 600L respectively. Even larger than that are French foudres, which technically aren’t barrels as they are significantly larger. These massive vessels can hold up to 300hL (30,000L!) of wine and are similar to the oak botti traditionally used in Italy’s Piedmont region.
Barrels – Things to know:
The term for someone who crafts barrels is a cooper. Their place of work, or where a winemaker would go to purchase a barrel, is called a cooperage.
The use of barrels is not a new practice in winemaking: they have been in use since at least the third millennium BC in ancient Egypt, where tubs with wooden staves were used during harvest. There is also evidence of barrels used for storing wine in ancient Babylon, iron age Britain, Gaul and ancient Rome.
The level of toasting of the inside of a new barrel determines the flavours imparted into the wine. A higher toast gives richer flavours of spice, vanilla and coffee bean.
Larger barrel sizes are typically employed by winemakers who wish to reduce the amount of influence the wood has on a wine. For example, the ratio of surface area in direct contact with the wine is far less in a foudre than in a barrique.
Other alcoholic beverages frequently aged in oak include (but are not limited to) cognac, sherry, beer, cider, whisky, rum, calvados and port.