Before Australian wineries began importing French oak barriques (225 litres) made and assembled in France, there was a mixed broth of oak. The majority was American, but the two major coopers did import a limited amount of French oak and make the barrels here. An alternative was for all the staves to be cut and put in place in France, then disassembled and sent to Australia in bundles (the idea being to save freight costs) where the jigsaw puzzle would be completed.
Not only was the oak mainly American, but the most common barrel sizes were hogsheads (300 litres) and puncheons (500 litres). Prior to the 1975 vintage I purchased once-used puncheons from Montrose Winery in Mudgee (Italian winemaker Carlo Corino decided he didn’t really want to use oak) and put them into use for the 1975 vintage at Brokenwood. The barrel storage area was a sunken pit at the end of the winery, and the only way of getting barrels in or out was through a heavy duty block and tackle arrangement. That, of course, was wildly impractical, and about as far removed from the stacking of barriques on metal cradles moved four at a time with a forklift, as the earth from the sun.
Now, as in so many things in wine, the wheel has turned full circle, and at Coldstream Hills (and other high end wineries around the country) puncheons are making a comeback. The idea is to slow the oak ageing process, both in terms of oak flavour, but also the broader pattern of development of wine in oak.
The pictures taken at Coldstream Hills point to the difference; the one huge advance is metal cradles for the puncheons which likewise permit forklift movement. There remains a certain element of manual handling (getting the puncheons on and off the cradle, and also manipulating them for cleaning) but that is a small price to pay.