Gardeners have become very fond of wine barrels since the wine industry conveniently started making them available.
We snap them up as industrial waste, to make mundane planters and water features, but how many have stopped to contemplate what a work of art they are?
The barrels scattered through our gardens and public places are made from fine French oak, 80-120 years old, which is enough to make you take a second look just for starters, especially knowing oak's slow rate of growth in its northern hemisphere home range.
The consequent fineness of the grain is just one of the characteristics that makes French oak the desirable timber for wine production.
There's also its toughness, workability and stability wet or dry, not to mention that all-important tannin content for imparting colour, flavour and texture to wine aged in its care. For those not already steeped in wine knowledge, dipping into the lore of the barrel involves immersion in exotic words like phenols, ellagitannins, volatile aldehydes, and organoleptic characteristics, the source of all those "complex aromas" beloved of wine writers.
The barrel maker (the cooper) has more mundane matters to consider as well when selecting and cutting timber of the required character and shape.
It's hand-split and planed, and stacked to age naturally for several years to eliminate what are described as "undesirable odours and harsher tannins".
In the next step the timber is cut to length, tapered, bevelled, planed on the outside and slightly hollowed in the inside. With each stave having its own unique character, it's little wonder photos of cooperages show an arsenal of varying-sized hand tools.
Finally comes the day-long assembly process. The cooper raises the barrel by fitting about 30 selected staves together inside a metal hoop as a jig, then forcing on metal hoops to hold everything in place.
Dampening and charring (‘toasting') over a wood fire makes the wood fibres flexible, allowing the staves to be winched together into shape - and imparting more flavours to the wine.
The ends are trimmed, and the croze (the groove) cut for the custom-cut barrel head in another process of great skill and precision.
After all this, the price of a new barrel, landed in New Zealand - this season $1200 to $1400 - seems a snip.
Though perhaps not for the winemaker, as barrels can be used for only four to five years, by which time the flavours are leached out of the timber. There are ways to extend its useful life, but with less quality.
In Europe there's a long tradition of recycling the barrel head as a finely carved art object. This doesn't seem to have been taken up yet locally, although craft furniture makers are producing very nice platters, and constructing items from staves like candle holders, racks, and chairs (the curvature permits a comfortable version of the Cape Cod design).
Whole barrels can be turned into tables, but there's the challenge of matching the table top to the quality oak - macrocarpa really doesn't do it. Barrels are rather large for indoor furniture, but can be turned into items like wine cupboards.
What other item in relatively common use is still made completely by traditional handcraft techniques dating back to the Romans? They are a wonderful conversation piece, especially for practical minded blokes, most particularly when converted to something exotic, like housing a barbecue.
The major challenge with modifying a barrel to that extent is that anything involving cutting a hoop destroys the barrel's integrity, requiring screw fixing of every stave to every hoop.
With six or eight hoops, that's an awful lot of screws.
Easier to stick to using clean-cut halves as planters.
Veteran gardener Lois Thomson advises best results with wine barrel planters can be obtained through placing the drainage holes in the sides - four evenly spaced about ten centimetres up. Place a layer of gravel in the barrel, then one of peat, with plugs of peat into the gravel to help plants draw moisture up.
Then potting mix, and plants that will be all the happier for a more even water supply. Plus the barrel holds together better if it never dries out.
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