Most oak barrels you find for sale are dried oak, to make them easier to ship. The right barrel is important because it will be what ages your wine and adds additional layers of character to it. If you want to have your own home winery, then you will probably want to consider an oak barrel.
The New Barrel
Once you receive your new barrel, you should visually inspect the barrel to make sure there are no flaws. It is rare, but small cracks can ensue during transportation so it is very important to check the barrel. Using a flashlight, inspect the interior for dirt. There may be a few cracks between the slabs of wood because it is dried. These will be sealed before use, so these aren’t a problem.
Preparing your New Barrel
A new barrel will need to be swelled—the sealing process for oak and other types of barrels. There are two ways to swell your barrel: a cold soak or a hot soak.
The cold process will take about two days, though the older the barrel, the longer the process. To start, you will fill up the barrel one-third of the way up with cold water and let it stand for at least three hours. Next, fill it up to two-thirds full and let stand for another three hours. Next, you will fill the barrel to the top of the barrel and leave it there until the barrel stops leaking water. You will want to continue filling the barrel to the top until there is no leaking.
Once the barrel is sealed, you can remove the water and fill it with wine.
The hot process is similar, though you will fill the barrel to one-tenth its volume with hot water. This means that if you have a 60 gallon barrel, you will put in six gallons of water). Insert the bung and then slosh around the water until it touches everything inside the barrel.
Put the barrel on its end and then fill the outside head area with hot water and let it sit for 15 minutes. Repeat the same process on the other side, drain the water and let the barrel cool off.
Once you are finished, fill the barrel with cool water as a test and then you can drain and fill with your wine.