French ‘hybrid’ wine barrel made of clay and wood 'is the future'

Some winemakers in France and abroad have been experimenting with clay fermentation vessels, similar to the amphoras used by ancient Romans

18 November 2021

The new barrels cost €2,800, double the price of a 400- litre wooden barrel, but they are expected to last 'lifetimes' Pic: Who is Danny / Shutterstock

By Brian McCulloch

An innovative ‘hybrid’ barrel made of clay and wood is being hailed as a way to mature wines to benefit from both materials.

Wine has traditionally been matured in oak barrels, which allow some of the flavours of the wood to enter the wine. This can often give a vanilla taste, adding to the complexity of the drink.

The new clay vessels are either made with terre cuite, the familiar red clay baked at relatively low temperatures and commonly used for roof or floor tiles, or with grès.

The latter is a white clay which is baked in a high temperature kiln, but not glazed like chinaware.

Both allow some air to enter the wine, while the absence of wood flavours is said to allow very fruity wines to be made. Clay can also add mineral nuances to the wine.

Lionel Kreff, sales director of Tonnellerie Baron, just outside Saintes in Charente-Maritime, told The Connexion: “Our new barrels should allow winemakers the best of both worlds – the fruitiness of using a grès with a top quality French oak barrel, built to their requirements. It is too early to say if the results meet expectations – the first wine went into barrels only a couple of months ago – but the demand from all sorts of winemakers, from Bordeaux reds to champagne to Tuscany reds in Italy, has been very strong.

Hybid wood clay barrel

Hybid wood clay barrel | Photo: Tonnellerie Baron

“Not everyone will receive their orders in the time they hope for because each barrel takes a while to make.”

The barrel’s clay bottom comes from the Italian city of Genoa, which is famous for its floor tiles.

“We needed a very pure clay, otherwise there is a risk of contaminants such as lead, aluminium and cadmium leaching from the clay,” said Mr Kreff. “And the baking [in a kiln to a temperature of 1,200C] is also done there.

“They have the necessary experience to do it.”

The wooden part of the barrel and the assembly are both done in France using coopers who have been trained in barrel-making in Cognac. Making a traditional wooden barrel involves selecting staves from matured wood, putting them into steel hoops and then bending into shape using a fire in the centre of the barrel, with water to soften the wood.

“Obviously, we cannot use traditional techniques,” said Mr Kreff.

“It took us years to perfect the system we use now to make the hybrid barrels and it is a closely guarded secret.”

The hybrid barrels hold 405 litres of wine, compared to a classic Bordeaux wine barrel of 225 litres.

Around 25% of the wine is in contact with clay.

At €2,800, the hybrid barrels are double the price of a 400- litre wooden barrel, but Mr Kreff says he expects them to last “lifetimes”.

“When the wooden part is finally too old, it can be replaced on the same clay base,” he said.

A dedicated handling tool for forklifts or pallet trucks, specially made for the barrel’s shape, is included in the price.

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