Recently I had the pleasure of watching Francis Durand, a master barrel cooper with the esteemed Radoux tonnellerie, build a barrel right on Deerfield's crush pad. It was an amazing experience and there were plenty of industry veterans, including Robert, who had never seen the process themselves. I videotaped the whole thing and you can check it out on Cellar Rat TV. I was fascinated by the process and it really got me thinking about the marriage between oak and wine. It is an element of winemaking that is easily overlooked. Trucks would arrive during harvest with dozens of beautiful new handmade barrels and as I helped unload them I gave little thought to the skilled craftsmen who created them or their enormous impact on the wine we were making. My perception of the grapes' journey to the glass had glossed over the entire art of coopering. The grape is grown in the vineyard and transported to the winery where it is transformed into wine and then bottled. I realize now that the fire and hammer of the cooper are just as much a part of that journey as the beaker and refractometer of the winemaker are.
Winemakers have known about the benefits of aging wine in oak for two millenia and the Roman Empire can be credited with expanding the usage of the material for constructing the barrel. There is no substitute for oak. There have been many attempts at using vessels made of other woods like cherry, pine, walnut and chestnut but none have the unique structural qualities and flavors of oak. In the barrel, oak is the right balance between hardness and softness that it is both durable and malleable enough to be shaped into a barrel. It is just porous enough to allow alcohol and water to evaporate through it, concentrating the flavor of the wine, and yet the grain is tight enough that it does not leak. The flavor that oak imparts is just as important as its ability to carefully expose the wine to minute amounts of oxygen. Compounds found in the oak and complexity yet also serve to stabilize the wine and its color. Oak further serves the winemaking process after it has been bottled. The cork tree is actually a type of oak, whose bark we remove to produce the corks so strongly associated with wine. While many alternatives, synthetic and natural, have been proposed, corks still seem to work best, allowing exactly the right amount of oxygen into the bottle to allow the wine to age gracefully. Since the beginning people have known that wine aged in oak tastes better but the science behind it has only been pursued for the last three decades or so. The process of "toasting" the wood, or putting the barrel over a wood fire fueled by more oak, adds a unique dimension to the wine. I had the opportunity to stick my nose in the barrel after Mr. Durand finished toasting it and it wasn't until I inhaled that enchanting aroma that I understood why wine and oak share such a bond - they both offer an incredibly complex and rich sensory experience that only improves when they are combined.