The Humble Barrel

The Humble Barrel [1]

At the beginning of the last century, the barrel was king. It was found everywhere and used to ship nails, biscuits, beer, patrolmen, whiskey, pickles, coins, and pretty much anything else that would fit from here to there. In 1910, some 91 million barrels were made in the United States.

Wood barrels were also a remarkable example of craft, with talented, well trained coopers hand-making these with simple tools well into the Industrial Age. Wooden barrels of the sort we see today arose in the first century B.C. in the forests of Western and Central Europe. The Celts had a “craving for the elixir of the grape,” or wine, and eventually made it in barrels. Advanced Celtic tools, aided by ample hardwood forests, would have allowed the Celts to “make the long jump from tapered, multi-piece pails and buckets to enclosed barrels.”

Romans used them in their commercial alliances around the Mediterranean, and they were a lifeline between the thirsty English and the Bordeaux region of France from the Middle Ages on. Barrels leapt the Atlantic to become the common coin of American commerce; Ports along rivers and harbors were invariably lined Barrels would be outmoded but for one fact: Spirits stored in them show marked improvement over time.

Barrels would have been wholly displaced today save for one lucky quirk, which was discovered by happenstance during centuries of transport: Wine stored in oak barrels tended to show marked improvement over time. White oak wood contains elements like lactones and tannins and a phenolic aldehyde called vanillin that gives the better wines those pleasingly elusive notes of vanilla. What’s more, barrels are semipermeable, allowing oxygen in, and allowing water and alcohol vapor out, thus creating controlled chemical reactions that influence flavor. ‘

American bourbon makers clamor for new casks (federal regulations require that anything-labeled “bourbon” be aged in new oak casks). Demand for barrels has surged in the past decade, and barrels are suddenly in short supply. Among some vintners, high-quality barrels also remain in high demand, although makers of cheaper wines have embraced workarounds, including the use of oak chips and short planks placed in stainless steel tanks.

At Majorca Vineyards, we rely on natural oak barrels and time to impart those subtle textures and flavors that fine wines deserve. Interested in trying a barrel-aged wine? Check out our unique Californian wine selection, or place an online wine order today! And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.

[1] Credit for these words goes to Henry H. Work from his book, “Wood, Whiskey and Wine” and a Wall Street Journal article by Wayne Curtis.

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