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The Art of Barrel Making

December 4, 2015

Barrel making in Burgundy , France

A glorious golden autumn day in the rolling vineyards of Burgundy leads to a most informative insight into cooperage - the art of barrel making and an understanding as to why our wine tastes so good - as if we needed any convincing ...

By Susan Harte

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As the golden sun glimmers over the famous and highly sought after Montrachet vines and the blue sky is intense and precious (we know winter is around the corner), it was hard to drag ourselves away from the thought of a picnic and a glass or two of some of the best chardonnay in the world, to head indoors to witness the ancient art of cooperage or barrel making. There is however not a good wine in the world that does not spend some time in a barrel – even the good chardonnays – so it was important to get an insight into this art … for the sake of our wine drinking .

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I’m feeling very lucky to be visiting this magical part of France with one of New Zealand’s top winemakers – I say this not only because Hugh Crichton is a very good friend, but his Vidals Legacy chardonnay has been voted top chardonnay in the world by Decanter magazine – no mean feat; so we are in good hands looking forward to a very knowledgeable tour.

Francois Freres is one of the most famous and well-known barrel makers in France, making the barrels for the likes of Romanee-Conti and Rober Mondavi in Napa. Their unassuming plant sits in the small village of Saint Romain, over the hill from the previously mentioned famous vineyards of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne and Pommard.

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The Tonnelierie – as barrel-making cooperages are known as in France – has a football field-sized outdoor area divided into the various stages of the barrel making process – large moss covered oak logs, neatly stacked lengths of timber, staves, and  offcuts.  Pellets of sawn lengths of timber (the staves) are neatly stacked from green new wood, to two year ‘seasoned ‘ dark grey.

Oak trees in France are specifically grown for barrel-making, in sustainable, managed forests run by the french equivalent of our National Parks.

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These huge beautiful oak logs with their strong green and spicy aroma produce roughly four barrels each – which seems incredible given how large they are, but that is how particular these craftsmen are with their barrel making. Only 20% of each log is good enough for the barrel, the rest is used for heating in the factory or sold off for flooring etc – every part of the log is used. The timber must have perfect grain – no knots and the grain must be tight. Each log is spilt by hand,  inspected and cut down to size . The workers’ eye can judge if the wood is straight enough and the grain tight enough to put it in the right pile – all painstakingly labour intensive.

Once cut down to exact sizes the wood is stacked and sent outside again for the 2-3 years of seasoning. Patience – like waiting for a good wine – runs through this process of the wine making too. Having lost almost 80% of its weight in the drying process and many of its green tanins have leached out, the logs are ready. Once dried and seasoned the wood is brought back into the factory and each stave is cut down by laser saw to create the proper curve and smoothed into the correct shape.

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A team of craftsmen began with their metal rings and then stacked the wood into the rings with alternate thin and thicker staves, slowly hammering with a mallet to get the barrel into shape. I can realise the need for earplugs sported by all the workers  – the hammering as the barrel takes shape, can be deafening.

They move fast and in masterly fashion; every workman has their own specific skilled job.  And I say ‘man’ because other than in the office there were no women in sight – it is most definitely a man’s domain as the strength required for this job was evident.

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We now headed to the best part  – the’ toasting ‘ of the barrels . It smelt deliciously like freshly baked bread and would most definitely be the best job in cold mid-winter. Barrels were systematically placed over fires in a circle and a natural rhythm occurs of stoking the fires, watering the edges to stop burning, slipping rings over top of the warming barrels, more hammering; it is the same man who has this one job as his eye and his rhythm is unique and is what gives Francois Freres consistency to their barrels and therefore consistency to the wine.

Each order of barrels is custom made according to the different oak, drying and toasting requests from the various wineries and winemakers.

The final stage involves cleaning the burn off the barrel, changing the rings to clean metal rings, checking they are water tight and  adding willow to the top to allow for the rolling of barrels in the cellars without damaging the metal rims. Incredible new laser technology allows you to get your logo and name burnt onto the barrel.

A barrel sells for around $1500 each and I can now absolutely see why – the skill, the artistry, the dedication to making each and every barrel is impressive and a work of art.

It seems a crime to have a half barrel as a garden on my doorstep – I feel guilty each time I look at it but at the same time have enormous respect for the love and artistry that goes into cooperage and each and every precious barrel- not to mention an even better appreciation for the oak barrelled chardonnay I am opening tonight.

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Hugh gives his take on the importance of the barrel in the wine making process  – “We see the use of quality French oak barrels as integral to our wine style and classical approach to winemaking.  We’re looking to produce wines with texture, complexity and balance and oak plays an important role in achieving this. Key though is balance. In my view great wines are ethereal in nature, where the components work together without one dominating, where power and restraint combine and where human senses interpret the whole far greater than the individual parts.

There is something deeply satisfying in using the natural material of oak in what is essentially a natural and creative process. There are many synergies between great barrels and great wine but first and foremost both require quality raw materials, whether that be oak grown for 100+ years in sustainable forests or grapes grown in great vineyards. The hand selection of oak trees, the splitting into staves, sorting and subsequent “seasoning” outside in the natural elements for up to 3 years, the craftsmanship in further selection, shaping and toasting over open fire are all areas requiring experience, expertise and attention to detail.

We’re not using oak purely for flavour. We’re using it as a storage vessel for fermentation and maturation and for the textural elements and complexity it can offer wine. While there have been many developments and innovations in grape growing and winemaking, some of which have improved quality without question, there are some things that just stay the same. We love and respect the tradition, heritage and natural relationship between oak barrels when making Chardonnay, Syrah and Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon “

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Francois FreresVidals Winery Hawkes Bay
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Francois Freres
Village Bas, 21190 Saint-Romain, France, +33 3 80 21 23 33

Vidals Winery Hawkes Bay
913 St Aubyn Street East, Parkvale 4122, New Zealand, +64 6-872 7440

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