The Magicians of French Oak Barrels

The intense noise of metallic hammering and low-pitched clunky thumps is only surpassed by the scent. Be it a scent, aroma, or smell, this I do not quite know. But it is magic, a blend of fresh dry wood and wafts of char and toast, with, if one draws deeply, a sharp hit of sweat.

A French cooperage producing new barrels to which the world’s best winemakers entrust the fruits of their labour is a magical site. And for one who has seemingly forever taken the role of barrels in the process leading towards the final wine for granted – like moi – it is a place of wonder that makes me look at that 225-litre barrique in a new light. One of awe and bewilderment, and respect.

Tonnellerie Sylvain, based in Saint-Denis-de-Pile, an oak-leaf’s blow north-west of Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, is one of the world’s most renowned brands in the hallowed world of premium French wine barrels. While the action is in the cooperage filled with – mostly – men splicing massive oak logs, setting staves in steel hoops, firing the half-set vessels over knee-high flames and rolling the barrels about the cavernous space, it all begins in the forest. The earth and the soil, here where the oak trees grow and live in the climes of rural France ranging from searing hot summers to arctic winters.

France loves its forests – some 18m hectares of the country is declared forest, one-third of which is oak. Large parts of this natural oak wilderness can be attributed to the foresight of a couple of noble historical French figures. Such as King Louis the 14th and one Napoleon Bonaparte, both of whom decreed that the central parts of their motherland be planted to oak trees for the building of ships in order to fortify the navy of La Grande Nation. Although with his known love of wine, Napoleon might well have seen the forests’ other potential.

Of course, were warships still built from wood, the global wine industry would be in a pit of a pickle. But it is not so, thus French cooperages have an abundant supply of trees from which to craft barrels to assist the wine world in producing the good stuff.

Before visiting Sylvain, we had stopped-off at a cool, silent forest called Bertranges back east in the direction of the Sancerre. Here the oaks grow straight and high, up to 40m, but with surprisingly lean trunks only some one metre in diameter. Take into account that these oaks to be felled for barrel-making are between 150 and 250 years old, and you don’t have to be a forestry scientist to get the logistical picture: the tree’s body is extremely tightly grained, a prerequisite if it is going to end-up holding a few hundred litres of valuable liquid of the wine kind.

Seeing the felled corpses of these majestic old trees may lead to tender emotion among some concerned souls, but never fear: France’s love of its environment ensures that for every tree cut-down, a handful of seedlings are planted to ensure continuity.

Like all cooperages, the primary stage of Tonnellerie Sylvain’s business involved buying the trees and trucking them to the cooperage plant. Here the trunks are sawn into the required length, before a frightening-looking bit of machinery with a blade looking like a massive screwdriver head, splits the trunk along the grain.

Seasoning staves at Tonnellerie Sylvain.

From this fresh wood, staves are sawn – on average 90cm in length, 13cm wide and with a thickness of 2.4cm. Hundred and hundreds of staves.

Although these oak staves resemble the ones seen in a wine vat, it will be a few years before they are called for higher duty as barrel components. Seasoning must now follow, the staves stacked in horizontal square piles in the outdoors around the expansive Sylvain plant. Here the wood spends two to three years exposed to the elements, ensuring the fresh wood’s moisture of between 40% and 70% dries down to 15%. During this extended period in the sun and the wind, the rain and the cold nights, harsh tannins seep out of the wood – you can see it in the dark-grey to black colour the staves acquire during the seasoning period.

In its quest for holistic sustainability, Sylvain even plants flowers and shrubs in the seasoning area to create a micro-biodiversity within which the staves can rest before they are sent into the cooperage for some respectful manhandling and exposure to intense fire.

Once seasoned, the wood goes inside. Planed and smoothed. Some 30 staves are used per barrel, these initially packed into the metallic hoop, respectfully manhandled with hammer and muscle to make sure the wood fits tight and true. With the one half of the barrel fitted into the hoops, the vessel is rolled over an open flame for toasting, the inside lightly charred, now changing the nature of the wood as well as ensuring the heat makes the staves pliable so that the top-end of the barrels can be drawn in by a cable so the other hoops may fitted.

The ends are topped with oak discs, and the final stage is branding the head with the name of Sylvain as well as the winery for whom this crafted thing of beauty is destined.

This whole process is driven by, as far as I could see, craftsmen, some of whom have been coopers for two to three generations. Like a good rugby loose-forward, a cooper needs strength, a deft eye and timing skills. And stamina. Manual labour, this, but one requiring an understanding of wood and a feeling for this primary tangible gift from nature, as well as firm knowledge of the place for which it is destined. Namely a cellar where it will be the custodian of the offering from the vineyard, and the dream of the winemaker.

Coopers, we salute you.

(Photos courtesy of Tonnellerie Sylvain.)

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One thought on “The Magicians of French Oak Barrels

  1. oh yes it is a great experience to see which trees will be bought from the forests (in our case near Fontainebleau). The man marking the trees he wants to buy at the action tells us how he selects the perfect trees. An art in itself. Then the very manly process of cutting and splitting and stacking ,the endless rows of staves maturing. And the deafening factory where the barrels are formed and shaped and hammered and toasted-in our experience Mercurey in the Bourgogne. The end result is tailormade to the customers instructions as to toasting, types of wood, some customers going as far as specifying from which forest they want their barrels to be made!
    I love the world of wine and all it entails, including such a factory visit. Wine makes me travel the world, and visit all the nicest places. Now in South Africa for the Cape wine Fair 2022, but reluctant to leave and about to change my return ticket once again.

    thank you for your wonderful articles, Emile

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