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For decades, the coopers at Yalumba have built bespoke barrels that seed
distinctive flavour profiles for their premium reds, whites and fortifieds.
Utilising predominately handcrafted mastery blended with modern methods,
head cooper, Shaun Gibson, is a rare breed in Australia’s wine industry.
He practices one of the oldest surviving trades in the world, deftly applying
an elemental combination of fire and water to toast and shape the wood

For decades, the coopers at Yalumba have built bespoke barrels that seed distinctive flavour profiles for their premium reds, whites and fortifieds. Utilising predominately handcrafted mastery blended with modern methods, head cooper, Shaun Gibson, is a rare breed in Australia’s wine industry. He practices one of the oldest surviving trades in the world, deftly applying an elemental combination of fire and water to toast and shape the wood.

Did you grow up in the Barossa with family
roots in winemaking?

I was born in Adelaide and originally spent the
first years of my life in Leigh Creek, a small
coal mining town in the north. My family moved
to the Valley when I was about five, and we’ve
been proud Barossans ever since. Short of some
seasonal grape-picking in the first year my mum
did, just to kind of find their feet, there’s been no
generational connection with the wine industry.


What was your path and interest in becoming a
cooper?

The wood-tech side of things was something
I really enjoyed. Given the area we lived in,
I guess there was only one true path – and
that was coopering. After completing Year
12, I branched out and applied for a couple of
places, landing on this one. I did not think I’d be
here at Yalumba for 25 years. But it’s a great
place; hard to walk away from. When I started
my apprenticeship, there was my teacher and
three other full-time, qualified coopers. I learnt
from some very traditionally oriented people,
which was good. It wasn’t so much a factory
environment, but more about working with hand
tools and the proper ways of doing things.


Could you describe your journey to mastering
the trade of bespoke barrel making?

When my teacher left, a decade or so later, he
passed the baton of Head Cooper over to me.

It was pretty flattering, but also a scary thing: taking
over the running of a cooperage and managing some
of the people I was learning from. The way I’d define
being a ‘master of the trade’ is, I feel that knowing those
traditional tools and ways of repairing probably gives me
a big heads-up on a lot of coopers these days who are
more on the machines. Given most situations, I’m fairly
comfortable that through an understanding of wood and
how it all works, I can get a good result.


It does seem quite rare for an Australian winery to have
its own cooperage.

There’s definitely only a handful out there that have this
process. All the other wineries are looking at a website
or listening to a salesperson telling them their barrels
are going to be fresh – but they might be sitting in a
warehouse for two years before they’re shipped across
the equator. For us, the big difference is we’re working
with the winemaking team hand-in-hand, creating specific
barrels for certain wines, predominately for our premium
reds. It’s a good driver to ensure we’re doing our part in
making the great wines that Yalumba produce.


What are the variations in the crafting process that help
achieve specific characteristics?

What we put in a barrel is reflective of the wine it’s going
to be used for. Basically, by adjusting the amount of fire
and smoke, you can change the tannins and lignans and
alter the chemical reactions within the oak, bringing
out those darker flavour profiles such as coffee or deep
spice. For bigger, bolder effects we tend towards a
traditional fire-bend with a heavier toast to give it more
of a robust flavour. Whereas for elegance and balance
in a wine, you might water-bend or steam the wood and
give it a medium toast. We also source our oak from
different forests and climates – French, Hungarian and
American – with varying grain structure, so we don’t end
up with the same, predictable result every time.


Is there a typical rhythm to your workday?
As an apprentice it started with iced coffee, and now as
a 40 year-old man, it’s a minimum of two cups of strong
black to start the day! My time varies and can be broken
up in a million different ways.

It was pretty flattering, but also a scary thing: taking over the running of a cooperage and managing some of the people I was learning from. The way I’d define being a ‘master of the trade’ is, I feel that knowing those traditional tools and ways of repairing probably gives me a big heads-up on a lot of coopers these days who are more on the machines. Given most situations, I’m fairly comfortable that through an understanding of wood and how it all works, I can get a good result.

It does seem quite rare for an Australian winery to have its own cooperage.
There’s definitely only a handful out there that have this process. All the other wineries are looking at a website or listening to a salesperson telling them their barrels are going to be fresh – but they might be sitting in a warehouse for two years before they’re shipped across the equator. For us, the big difference is we’re working with the winemaking team hand-in-hand, creating specific barrels for certain wines, predominately for our premium reds. It’s a good driver to ensure we’re doing our part in making the great wines that Yalumba produce.

What are the variations in the crafting process that help achieve specific characteristics?
What we put in a barrel is reflective of the wine it’s going to be used for. Basically, by adjusting the amount of fire and smoke, you can change the tannins and lignans and alter the chemical reactions within the oak, bringing out those darker flavour profiles such as coffee or deep spice. For bigger, bolder effects we tend towards a traditional fire-bend with a heavier toast to give it more of a robust flavour. Whereas for elegance and balance in a wine, you might water-bend or steam the wood and give it a medium toast. We also source our oak from different forests and climates – French, Hungarian and American – with varying grain structure, so we don’t end up with the same, predictable result every time.

That’s the good thing about working at Yalumba – it’s
not a mass-producing cooperage. We make about four
complete barrels a day – bending and toasting before the
heat kicks in, then in the afternoon we’ll do the finishing.
Plus, there’s office and promotional work. Before Covid,
speaking to the public was quite a big thing. Now our
ambassadors at the cellar door will show people through
and we can keep working. It gives our customers, from
all walks of life, more understanding of the making and
an intimacy with the product they’re buying.


It must feel very satisfying to be working in one of the
oldest crafts still practiced today.

Coopering is defined as one of the original trades. From
pictographs, there’s evidence of casks being used in
Egypt thousands of years ago. What I find alluring is that
they got it so right and kind of perfect then that we never
really had to change it. Apart from a bit of hydraulic
and electrical work to make mass production easier,
the concept is ultimately the same. What’s humbling for
a civilisation like ours is that we’re always striving to
recreate the wheel – but in this case we can’t.

We extend our warmest thanks to Shaun for sharing his many years of experience
with us and taking us behind the scenes to witness the atmosphere at the
Yalumba cooperage. Like the sturdy oak he shapes and crafts, his Trojan Safety
Boots have been put through their paces and come out on top – providing the
assurance of a reinforced steel toe cap and a durable, slip resistant tread.

SHOP TROJAN BOOT

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