So, before moving onto a detailed post on the labor and techniques involved in the making of one, I decided to share with you an article I came across of during a recent trip to Italy. It's an interview to Mauro and Eugenio Gamba, the owners of the prestigious “Fabbrica Botti Gamba”, a renowned family owned Cooperage of a few generations. Here it is, translated from “Il Corriere Della Sera”, published on April 7th 2013:
“The Magnificent curves of a barrel”, by Roberta Scorranese
You need to trust the wood. You look at it and you immediately understand its limitations and possibilities, observing its quirks and signs of age. Then you challenge it: the planks, first of all. Preferably French oak, although some request even acacia (thorntree) wood. Purity and sturdiness are noticeable at first sight, but then it's during the burning that the quality of the wood in every plank is revealed. “It's the most delicate phase in the coming to life of a barrique: if the plank endures the flame, if the wood gives in, but not too much, if the aroma is able to condensate into a natural fibrous nuance, then the little barrel will be perfect“, says Mauro Gamba, heir of the of the family cooperage of the Gamba of Castell' Afero of which he represents the seventh generation.
We are on the Monferrato's Hills, near Asti. The vineyards climb on the green hills in long frayed lines, here everything speaks of wine, from the ancient popular sayings (i.e.: “it's better to have warm wine than cold water”) to the affability of the -numerous- entrepreneurs.
The Gamba family, after 220 years of history, possesses a patrimony of anecdotes, knowledge as well as some nostalgia. “Of course I remember wine's golden years in Italy, between the 80s and the 90s.” says Eugenio Gamba, Mauro's father, who spent his life binding and testing barriques, large and small. (He remembers) the years when the scandal of the wine made with methanol pushed the viticulturists to abandon the strategy of quantity to favor quality instead and stimulated them to rediscover local vineyards. It was then that the value of master coopers as the Gambas re-flourished: they were amongst the first in Italy to produce barriques and with a few, but precise basic rules: air dried, bending of the staves a tutto spessore (full thickness), meaning along the entire length of the stave, from head through the 'belly'. Today they are great exporters to United States, Australia, Israel.
“Our job is closely related to the quality of the wine -says Eugenio- because only if one puts in it a good product you may really appreciate the sealing of the timber. Its ability to 'melt' into the drink giving it its delicate aroma.
The french traditional barrique is today very debated: does it really preserve all the qualities of the excellent wine or does it rather flatten its flavor, conferring the same attributes onto all wines?
“Facts speck on our behalf -says Eugenio- because, although it's true that the demand in Italy is decreasing due to the crisis, it's also true that we work a lot with countries, like California, that are world centers for quality wines.”
Without considering that many of the raising Countries in the wine business, like Russia and India, perceive the barrique as a definite indication of refinement. Different scenario in China, where it's increasing the demand for low cost wine, therefore detouched from the complexity of a perfect barrel.
Meanwhile the toasting of the barrels continues, spreading a spicy aroma in the air.
The little fires on which the barrel is placed to toast are lit, while the hammering of the coopers echoes all around. Almost everything is done by hand, even though in the last few years a few sophisticated machineries have been acquired. Everything is calculated in relation to the market (the wine) is intended for: kosher wine, for example, for the israeli one, cannot get in contact with the blend of water and flour that is added to the rim to better fit the pieces together. So the Gambas have developed a natural mastic that is checked personally by the Rabbi supervising it.
How to save this world from perishing? For the moment with a museum, that the Gambas are putting together in the basement. Photos, tools of the trade, old devices from their grandfather. On it all, there's a hope: “That the Italian economy will pick-up again -concludes Mauro- otherwise not only the traditions will die, but also the desire to keep them alive.