Good wine often requires careful wood aging. The winemaker must choose the size of barrel required. Small barrels have higher wood-to-wine ratios and hence affect the wine to a greater degree than do large barrels. A very large cask will often impart minimal wood characteristics to the wine, but instead act as a vehicle for slow and steady oxygenation of the wine. Age of barrel also matters. New oak barrels impart more wood characteristics to wine than once, twice, or thrice used barrels. The period of time a wine remains in barrel is also important. When winemakers create their final blends, they may combine wine that has been aged in used barrels with wine aged in newer oak, or even combine wines aged in giant casks with wine aged in small barriques. Whatever the configuration, the Gamba Cooperage in Italian Piemonte just north of Asti produces barrels and casks with the greatest of care, combining the heritage of multiple generations of the Gamba family with state-of-the-art electronic equipment.
I met Gamba patriarch Eugenio and son Mauro Gamba when I visited the cooperage on a foggy December day in the company of local winemaker Marco Crivelli and his niece Federica. Before we even entered the building Mauro proudly showed me the wood seasoning yards where stacks of oak staves bear whatever the weather in Castell’Alfero will deal out over a period of years. The cheaper way to season barrel staves, which Gamba doesn’t touch, is kiln drying. The oak used for the barrels is mainly French, from 150 year old trees carefully (and sustainably) culled from the forests of Nevers, Allier, Cher, Vosges, Tronçais, Fontainbleau, Bourgogne, and Limousin. “We occasionally use some American oak,” Mauro says, “but it’s becoming increasingly hard to find because of the demands of the whiskey industry. For all this wood we don’t shovel off the snow, or shelter the stacks from the rain or burning summer sun. We just let nature work.” Seasoning polymerizes wood tannins and eases out green phenolic components. It is up to the merandier, the stave maker, to decide when the wood is ready to be incorporated into a barrel, as well as which oak varieties to use. While the cooperage is crammed with modern equipment, its only function is to enhance what is essentially a hand assembly process.
One of the keys to custom cooperage for barrels is the insistence on splitting wood for staves instead of sawing it. Here five cubic meters of quality wood yields just one cubic meter of staves, just one of the many reasons oak barrels are so expensive. The staves are trimmed (planed wider in the center and narrower at each end), assembled (requiring narrow and wide staves to be positioned in an alternating pattern), and heated (an open fire is brought to the center of each barrel). The heat makes the staves pliable so they can be molded using a steel cord to nestle snugly with each other. Steel hoops are then placed over the barrel and then the entire assembly is slow toasted by a skilled craftsman over fire, fixing the curvature of the staves and modifying the phenolic content of the wood. A state-of-the-art infrared monitoring device combines with the craftsman’s judgment to achieve the optimal toast of the barrel, eliminating blistering and optimizing aromatic compounds.
In addition to barrels of 114, 225, 300, 350, 500 and 700 liters, Gamba also uses an entirely different procedure to create large aging casks of a capacity of from 1,000 to 11,000 liters. These are always custom produced to customer specifications. Each stave is custom grooved, an exacting process that requires years of experience. Modern computer measuring equipment stands behind that experience. The company has also taken the lead in the creation of oak vats with steel lids for both fermenting and aging wine.
As a special treat, Mauro took us through the private Gamba museum that snakes under the cooperage. We visited barrel making of yesteryear, reveling in both in the equipment (and how it has changed) as well as the unbroken tradition of creating what is still a hand-assembled product so important in the production of wine. The visit for a wine lover like me was moving. I realized that both grapes and wood begin as natural products of the earth. It’s up to human beings, winemakers and coopers, to use experience and technology to coax the best wine out of both.