How long will my barrel last? And experience with Re-Coop Barrels and Small French Oak Barrels
Since I have started making wine I have used American Oak barrels and French Oak Barrels. In the early days I obtained mostly 15 and 30 gallon French Oak barrels. These were, believe it or not, very problematic. They were terrible leakers, especially the 15s. After a few years due to all the problems with them the supplier no longer imported them. When they didn’t leak they were a nice barrel that imparted the kind of oak flavors one would expect.
After that period of time with Small French barrels not available we turned to Gibbs American oak produced barrels. While the coopering was somewhat rough the barrels were tight. For me the bigger problem was the vanilla. At first it was manageable but as some years transpired the new ones had vanilla that was overwhelming. About that time we were introduced to Vadai Hungarian Oak produced barrels. These were generally coopered to a pretty high standard and they didn’t have the vanilla problem. Another nice feature was the price. Equal to the American Oak and much cheaper than French Oak Varieties that were now available.
Admittedly my heart has always rested with the French Oak. To prove this not only to myself but to others tasting my wines I have on repeated occasions taken the same wine and put into French Oak, American Oak, and Hungarian Oak. I have served these wines together and have asked for opinions. Interestingly many tasters think they are not the same wine. And for the most part the greater percentage by far liked the French versions over the others.
Which brings us to the economics of the entire affair. How to afford French Oak. In 2009 I was lucky to stumble upon a More Wine Warehouse Clearance Sale. At that time I purchased 15, and two 30s of the RE-Coop Brand Barrels. I was able to get these at a very good price but I was concerned about using a “used barrel”. A golden rule for me is never purchase used barrel. Now I know that used barrels are bought and sold all the time at the Commercial Level but for Amateurs on the East Coast the only used barrels I ever encountered being sold were Ethyl Acetate Generators. Needless to say the Re-Coops smelled like new. I had heard some criticism of these would be bleeders especially the 15s. I have been using these 3 barrels since 2010. They have bled and stained but they have produced award winning wine and as far as I am concerned did just as good a job as a new barrel. In November of 2012 when re-filling them I opted to use some Barrel Mill French Oak Medium Plus Spirals. Barrel tasting these wines indicate the spirals have restored some of the oak mostly likely would be missed if the barrel was left to its own devices.
In 2009 we made the first vintage of the Beckstoffer George the Third Cabernet Sauvignon. With all the excitement of actually getting these grapes it was decided early on this wine was destined for a brand new World Cooperage 59 gallon French Oak Barrel. And it would stay in that barrel for two years. It was worth every penny but lingering in the back of my mind was my curiosity to try a Re-Coop 59. So I bugged Frank Musto to bring some in from Sabastopol. He did and we took two of them. We put them into service and we can slay all the myths about Re-Coops. These barrels are as tight as any new one, they do not bleed at all and they are producing wine at half the price of a new French Oak Barrel. Since then we have purchased another two. Both were rehydrated and were holding water within 1 hour. So we can dispel that rumor as well.
As the barrels get older we will resort to using some adjunct oak but we expect to get quite a few wines in to these Re-Coops. For the 30 and 15 gallon sizes lucky for all of us now M&M Grape Co. carries a very reasonable French Oak line of Barrels that are coopered like works of art. For our small size barrels this is where we go. Many in the club are using them and the results so far are outstanding.