Timber!! From trees to barrels….
Our Cairanne cellar houses 23 demi-muids (large 600 litre barrels) which we use more and more to achieve finesse and balance to our wines during maturation. So important are these large barrels to the subtle oak discernible in our final wine that we wanted to trace their creation from forest to cellar. So we ventured into the deep, dark wood to find out more…..
The journey of our barrels starts in the Forêt de Tronçais in the central French region of Auvergne. Here wide girthed oak trees aged between 200 and 250 years old spear the sky.
Forêt de Tronçais is on the right bank of the river Rhȏne in the central area of France. This forest produces French oak more suited to long ageing; on the opposite bank of the river in the forest of Vosges the oak produced is suited to shorter ageing.
Managed by the ONF (Office National des Forêts) the forest is protected and trees for felling are selected with great care to ensure the survival of the forest. Some trees are preserved however, due to their significant age or majestic beauty.
Plots of trees are sold by the ONF to the wood negociant (“le mérandier”) in a buying process would challenge even the most hardened Wall Street trader. Each wood negociant is given a mere 25 seconds to bid for each plot of between 50 and 200 hundred trees in a blind auction.
The mérandier will manage the plot for several years before the ONF claim it back. During this time the mérandier will then select and mark trees ready for felling, allowing the younger trees more time to grow. Wood destined for barrels is selected from trees with very straight trunks.
If a particularly large tree has been marked for felling the upper branches of the canopy are trimmed before the main trunk is cut. Despite the chain saws and the sheer bulk of the tree this is a delicate procedure managed precisely to ensure the trunk does not break or split as it falls.
Now the transformation into wine barrel can begin. To satisfy the cooper (barrel maker) the wood negociant must select the straightest trunk from which to create staves (plank of wood for barrels). As carefully as a dressmaker cutting silk the negociant identifies ‘Le Fil du Bois’ – the line of the wood – and cuts the trunk along this line. This is crucial – ignore the line and the end result is a leaky barrel.
Once the staves are delivered to the cooperage they are stacked up like an inside out Jenga puzzle and left outside for a minimum of 18 months to allow air to circulate around each plank (some special selections are seasoned for up to 6 years). Once a year the timber stack is disassembled, the planks turned around and stack rebuilt so that all parts of the wood are exposed to the elements.
‘Séchage’ or seasoning of the wood can be done artificially by stacking the timber indoors and using large dryers. Obviously this takes less time but we prefer to work with coopers who use the natural method which is more suited to the slow ageing of our wines.
Finally its time to shape the wood into a barrel. We witnessed the cooper making a demi-muid, large 600 litre barrels which are used in our cellar alongside the smaller more conventional 228 litre barrel.
First the cooper selects every single piece of wood, making sure ‘le fil du bois’ is respected and in a continued line. Then he shapes and polishes each stave, selecting the ones which will fit together to create a barrel. He creates the ‘Cercler les Fûts’ by working each stave of wood, using either fire or water to make it more pliable, until they fit together in a tight circle.
The petals of the rose are then then joined together using a series of iron bands and the barrel begins to take shape. Coopers romantically refer to this circle as ‘The Rose‘.
Now its time for the cooper to show his true art by toasting the barrel. Each cooper uses a slightly different, and very secret, method to create an individual toast within the general bands of light, medium, medium plus or high toast.
We therefore tend to select barrels from just one or two coopers as this allows us to judge the resulting oak influence, preferring the medium toast of coopers Vallaurine for the demi-muids used to mature our Cairanne wines.
Once the desired level of toast is achieved the wood is shaped and planed again and the barrel closed.
After a thorough check for leaks and imprinting the coopers logo and our own Boutinot Rhȏne Bee emblem the barrels are ready to be delivered to our cellar to be filled with wine.
Barrels are re-used and our choice of 1st, 2nd or 3rd fill French oak barrels will have a bearing on the oak influence in the wine.