Cooperage, the art of barrel making, is an ancient highly specialized skill. The word “cooper” originates from the barrel makers of Illyria and Cisalpine in Gaul, where wine was stored in wooden vessels called “cupals,” and the maker was a “cuparius.” With all the advances in every facet of culture it's incredible to know that both the procedure and the tools to make wine barrels have remained relatively unchanged for the past three thousand years. To achieve the highest standards of quality, the time intensive work must still be performed by the hands of a skilled cooper- who still today apprentice for the duration of seven years.
Fully closed barrels were first developed for the use of holding wine, beer, milk, olive oil, and water. As trade and transportation developed, shippers discovered that sealed wooden
containers were superior to clay vessels and there it was, the craft of cooperage had begun.
The advantages of wooden barrels were a) their strength, b) mobility (barrels easily rolled from one place to another) and c) it became evident that wine benefited in unexpected ways from being stored in this oak wood! This third advantage forms the ENTIRE basis for the modern cooperage industry and in fact is the only real reason for its continued existence in a world where stainless steel and nonreactive synthetic materials outweigh all other advantages that barrels ever possessed.
If our ancestors had not been using these wooden oak barrels as wine storage out of sheer convenience for such a long stretch of history, it's highly unlikely that we would have ever thought of adding the oak flavor dimensions to wine. So we may say that we won the lottery, or that this historical coincidence was fated because wine and oak married so harmoniously. Oak adds richness, more complex flavor and texture than wine does stored in any other vessel.
What do oak barrels impart to wine that improves and enhances it? Well, oak barrels are sort of the metaphorical spice rack that wine makers use to make a wine of their style. Speaking in broad generalities, French oak barrels are typically more subtle and spicy, offering textures of satin or silk. American barrels tend to be stronger in flavor, often described as cream soda, vanilla, or coconut, resulting in wines with a more creamy texture. The chemistry of the oak barrel can impart differing amounts and qualities of flavor and texture depending on the type of oak used. American oak versus French oak, sawn versus hand-split, air-drying vs. kiln drying of the staves, and the use of boiling water, steam, natural gas, or wood fire to bend the staves are the most important variables in the manufacturing process. And as all goes in the world of wine...barrel makers and wine makers all over hold widely differing opinions on the best way to make a barrel. One thing we can all agree on is that barrel making is an extremely complicated craft and there are no amateur barrel makers!