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The Swig - Barrels

Posted by Ben Hughes on


There was man called O’Farrel

Who had the proportions of a Barrel

‘Are you for real?’ asked a bloke

Just by way of a Joke

‘Nah, You’ll find it’s only me apparel’


I was sittin’ at a bar one fine evenin’  sippin’ on a schooner of fine old Aussie Shiraz, when I found cause to ask the bar tender if she ‘ad a pair of tweezers.  ‘Tweezers?’ she repeated quizzically.

I explained that somehow I had a splinter in my tongue. 

‘Ah!’ she says’ your wines been over Oaked’

‘Over oaked’ it was my turn to do the repeatin’

‘Oooh yeah, used to ‘appen quite a bit in the bad ‘ol days, but not so much any more’. 





I pressed her for more information about oak, not physically of course, I’m not that sort o’ bloke, but with a few questions.  Like, ‘Why Oak, don’t they take ages to grow?’ She said about a hundred years before they’re ready to harvest.  ‘You must be about ready to be harvested as well then’ I said with a cheeky grin.  The room fell silent and I could hear the sudden sounds of inward sucked air as every eye fell my way with a mix of shock and sympathy.  Dear reader, my misplaced attempt at humour was not entirely incorrect as she did indeed look about a hundred.

, Want ta know about wine barrels Son?’  I turned to the speaker, who looked remarkable like a barrel but adorned with limbs and a head.  He introduced himself as O’Farrel and there was nothin’ he couldn’t tell me about a barrel. So, there I sat as he immersed me in information about wine barrels.

I learned that wine barrels are only ever oak as this has proven to be the most compatible type of wood with wine.  That the wood is seasoned in all types of weather for a couple of years before being used and then some bloke called Cooper makes the actual barrel.  Next, he mentions American and French oak being the two preferred types, ‘What’s the difference’ I asked and he went on to tell how American Oaks commonly will have wider gaps between the grain in the wood where the French tend to a fine, closer grain.  He likened the effect American Oak has on wine a bit to a party where a Hollywood Cowboy showed up, Brash and very obvious whereas French oak is more akin to one of those surrealist poets from the sixties, moodily sitting in the shadows and reluctantly giving away snippets of subtle wisdom. ‘So’ I announced ‘If you taste a wine and immediately taste the oak influence, it’s American and if you have to hunt around to find the characteristics, it’s French!’


‘What characteristics are those?’ asked a voice from the back of the room.  ‘Hmmm, I…’ I lwas stuck for an answer and looked to my companion for help.  He leaned over conspiratorially ‘Well, with the American it’s pretty obvious vanillary tones whereas the French have a bit more Tannin, other than that it’s a case of looking at your kitchen spice rack, cinnamon, nutmeg cloves yada yad yada’ ‘Don’t forget the age of the barrels!’ an eavesdropper nearby whispered. ‘Yup’ said O’Farrel ‘As the barrels age, their influence on the wine will lessen, American oak generally only a couple of years and French a few more than that, also the size of the barrel will have an impact, the bigger the barrel the less wine in contact with wood, the less influence in the wine’.  I asked what was a common size of barrel. ‘Hogshead’ he said, ‘Sorry’ I replied sulkily ‘I only asked’. 


So after a moments thought I felt I understood it all ‘So!’ I announced ‘All wines are either aged in American or French oak!’  ‘NOOOO!’ the entire room announced collectively at me.  Startled I looked around at the bemused faces except the ancient bar tender who just rolled her eyes and wandered off shaking her head.  O’Farrel waved me down with that classic gesture of placation, and I slowly sat back down. He looked at me patiently ‘Most white wines and some reds are aged in stainless steel tanks, while some wines are aged for a time in oak and then In stainless steel, it’s all part of the choices a winemaker has in making a fine wine’  Well, I sat back trying to absorb all the information and said

‘It’s enough to drive a man to drink’.

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