The person who makes oak wine barrels is called a cooper. It comes form the latin word “cupa” which means vat. Research has not uncovered who actually made the first wine vats, but it is known that the Celts arrived in Burgandy, France, in the 13th century BC. They were a much progressed “tribe” who worked with all the materials of the day, such as wood, clay, stone, iron and precious metals. They were into building wooden boats and are credited as the people first to realize that wood could be bent using steam and heat, allowing them to make boats that were more efficient in the water. The hulls of their boats were smooth and moved through the water much easier than the earlier designs. This also allowed them to build bigger boats.
The idea of bending wood was then used in building wooden containers that were the ancestors to the modern barrel. This was a large improvements on the clay or earthenware containers that were used previously. The wooden containers could be made almost any size and they were not as heavy.
Sometime over the centuries, the cooper became the tradesman who made wooden barrels. The barrels were initially used to transport fluids and they were made from all types of timbers. However, it seems by chance it was discovered that French Oak was the ideal timber to make barrels for wine making. The French had planted a number of oak forests during Napoloen’s time to ensure that there would always be enough timber to build boats. With the introduction or iron, steel and other products, French oak was not required for ship-building, so alternative uses were found in manufacturing furniture and wine barrels. The French oak was found to enhance the wine with the addition of vanilla and oak overtones. The oak also allowed a small amount of evaporation, and this was known as the angels share”.
During the early times, the cooper not only made the barrels, but also looked after the early fermentation process. It was only when wine was bottled that other trades developed in the wine industry. Oak is still recognized to have advantages over steel and plastic, in that carbon dioxide and ethers that mask the aroma of wine evaporate through the oak. It is claimed that the oak also adds color and flavor to the wine.
French oak is argued by most as the superior oak in wine making, better than American and English oak. It is also at least twice the price. The French experts will also match the oak from particular forests with wines in order to produce the best product.
There is no doubt a long tradition in using oak in the preparation of certain wines, which is expected to continue for many years to come.