Whilst we supply a broad range of fortified wine barrels, including used madeira barrels, but also muscatel, sherry, brandy and cognac, our real speciality is used port wine barrels. One of the trickiest part of our job is sourcing the barrels from the port wine cellars when they have finished with them: typically what happens is that a cellar will suddenly release a relatively large number of barrels and we will drop round to inspect them and then bid for them. This means typically we will buy all the barrels available, as the cellar will want to get them off their hands with a minimum of fuss; this means we have highly fluctuating levels of used port wine barrel stock which is a logistical challenge in itself, but the most important thing is that we do not allow the barrels to dry out.
Once a used port wine barrel dries out, the port that coats the inside of the barrel will start to flake off losing some of the flavour and then the wood itself can begin to shrink, promoting cracks and gaps between the staves opening up. So it is extremely important that we keep our barrels moist. The way we do this is simple: we have the cellars leave a few litres of port wine in the bottom of the barrels when they supply them to us and that port wine will stay in the barrel until it arrives with you the customer (which is even more important when we have to ship over long distances, when there if further opportunity for the barrels to dry out over weeks at sea in unpredictable climates).
All the used barrels that leave our cooperage have to be checked over to make sure that they are leak-free and ready for filling, which means sometimes we have to carry out minor repairs or perhaps replace a stave. When we need to replace a stave we will cannibalise a barrel from the delivery so that one barrel will give up all its staves to other barrels so that the quality of all the delivery will not be compromised. When the barrels are being repaired we carefully drain them of their precious few litres of port wine, which is set aside and then replaced in the barrel once the repair is complete.
Above you can see the inside of a used port wine barrel (once the head has been removed). You will see a generous coating of port wine coating all the internal staves and it is our job as a supplier of used barrels is to make sure that they are delivered just like this to our customers. Once you receive the barrels, under no circumstances let them dry out before filling!