I’ve worked at Virgin Wines for over four years now, in a number of roles. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about wines and the wine trade. However last Christmas we were partaking in a cheeky game of pictionary, as you do. The hint for the picture was, “A job in the wine trade”. I couldn’t get it, I needed some help. When someone finally cracked it, the answer was “Cooper”. ‘What does a cooper do?’ that was my first question. So I asked our wine buyer Dave Roberts to explain it to me, and he was kind enough to write a blog post about it too.
One of the less glamorous or considered jobs in the wine trade, however, hugely important. Welcome to the World of the Cooper! These are the guys that make and maintain the hundreds and thousands of barrels that are used the world over for ageing wine.
Wine barrels are a hand crafted product that can take a number of years to complete. From the time the staves (the individual strips of oak that combined make the whole barrel) are hand split, left to season, to the final assemblage. The best way to season the oak is to leave it outside exposed to the elements where the wood tannins are slowly softened and the ageing process for the wine placed inside is a gentle one and considered more refined, than barrels that have been seasoned in a kiln for example.
Put simply there are three types of oak used to make wine barrels, French, American and Eastern European and broadly speaking each impart similar qualities to the finished wines. Flavours of vanilla and savoury spice are two main characters. However, French barrels are the most popular and considered the finest vessel and as a result cost the most, followed then by American with the Eastern European barrels bring up the rear.
Barrels have a life span and after 4 to 5 fills they impart little or no oakiness to the wines aged inside them. That doesn’t mean they are rendered useless. They still provide a slow oxygenation to the wines stored inside and often winemakers don’t want to impart masses of oak character to their wines. They are looking to preserve the vibrancy of the gapes natural characteristics in the finished wine.
On a recent trip to Champagne I visited a traditional still fully functional cooper’s workshop and captured him doing some general maintenance rounds, getting the barrels ready for the next vintage. See the attached snaps.