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Barrel Care Part 1: How to Start a Port Keg

Your personal blend of fortified can be a luxurious addition to any home. With a little time and attention, you can meld your special ingredients into a complex mixture that you can sip with satisfaction.

This fact sheet answers common questions we get asked about starting your home barrel. We share our tips for looking after your barrel and maintaining a quality blend throughout the barrel’s life in Barrel Care Part 2: How to Maintain a Port Keg.

What type of barrel?

Size & Storage

The main shapes on offer are round or oval in a variety of sizes, most commonly 4.5L, 9L, 14L and 20L (all between AU$250-400 per keg). Basically, the smaller the barrel and the warmer storage area, the more rapidly wine development will take place.

Most customers with moderate port-drinking tendencies are happy with the 9L size which provides adequate time for the wine to age and for the owner to notice its development. Evaporation in barrels less than 9L size is quite dramatic – 1/3 lost over 2 years!

At the other end of the scale, anything over than 20L needs a LOT of drinking in order to make room for new additions (if changing the blend). If you are only going to have one barrel and you are in for the long haul, then 14L is ideal.

Where do I find a good keg supplier or cooper?

We recommend purchasing your barrel from a reputable supplier with access to a good supply of aged oak and a range of quality accessories. The basics required are a stand or cradle and a tap that starts easily and doesn’t leak. Check that the stopper (bung) fits snugly and there are no chips or cracks in the barrel. Other useful bits of kit are a measuring jug, funnel and some kind of dipstick to monitor the wine level.

When it comes to oak age the older wood the better and as for oak type, we prefer to use old fortified barrels as this aids faster maturation of new fortified wines. Old red wine barrels are still fine to use, but will but take longer to mature. From our experience, we tend to achieve softer, fuller tannins in our fortifieds from using Amercian oak rather than French oak barrels.

Keg suppliers in South Australia include The Keg Factory, AP John Coopers, SA Cooperage Workshop, A.Stiller Coopers and Tubbies. We cannot recommend one supplier over an another as it depends on your requirements, sources of timber and craftsmanship of the final product. It goes without saying that you really do get what you pay for.

What about a custom finish?

There are many finishes and stains to choose from. The binding metal hoops can be antique brass, black or a shiny steel look. Some people ask if the external finish will affect the evaporation rate, but we believe it’s the internal treatment that should be your main focus. A quick note on cleaning the outside surface – do not polish or clean the barrel with chemical polisher but use water or a gentle dishwashing solution to remove dust or staining.

9L barrel with antique finish

A perfect gift idea is to personalise the barrel by engraving your unique image or special text onto the keg face.

How do I start my home fortified barrel?

Most times the supplier will provide instructions, but if they do not here are some basics:

  1. Rinse barrel with hot water with the bung in tight. Then fill with cold or warm water to see if it leaks. Make sure the barrel is left somewhere where leaking water will not do any damage and NEVER immerse the barrel in water.
  2. You can rinse 3-4 times with water to help remove woody flavours, but remember to change water each day. It is important to never keep water in a barrel or it will go off! Rinse barrel well and check for any troubling smells. If off-odours persist, you may have to have the barrel re-fired, which also sterilises it.
  3. We advise filling barrel with cheaper youthful fortified to extract initial wood flavours, or you can fill with blend of your choice and then turn barrel for a fortnight. We don’t advise using any spirit as that then stays with the wood flavour (unless you like spirit flavour!).

If using a second hand barrel, it can be rejuvenated by fermenting sugar and water in it. Then rinse with hot water before using with fortified wine. If in doubt, check with a cooper or keg supplier.

What about storage temperature?

Higher storage temperatures contribute to faster wine development. Kegs can handle being stored in a shed in the southern and eastern parts of Australia. In the tropics we recommend finding a spot between 20-30°C.

More questions?   Contact Ron Liebich for a qualified assessment of your personal blend

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