Barrel Making: A Trip To France

Here’s a riddle: if the average price of a good French barrel is not cheap and every cooper (or, barrel maker) purports to have the best, how does a winemaker go about unraveling the mystery of what to buy? With scores of forests to choose from (and regional flavors to consider), stave and barrel production methods to analyze, and sales pitches from 50-plus cooperages to sift through, the purchase process for barrels is daunting.

In mid-December of last year, I accompanied a small group of winemakers on a trip to France on an Oak Education tour, a trip intended to shed light on many of the questions we had around stave production, oak forest management and coopering methods. This may all sound a bit prosaic, but trust me, it was anything but.

As the seven days progressed, I became more and more curious about the mighty oak business we were studying, a besotted termite of sorts, willing to listen to endless hours of discussion about the mighty Quercus often in sideways rain, with cold, wet feet or straining to hear over the sounds of saws and sanders in the background.

In seven days, we traversed France, driving in a sturdy Mercedes van from Paris to the far west side of the country in the foothills of the mountains , through the center, over to the Atlantic and then back to Paris, visiting three stave mills, two forests and five coopers along the way—a veritable oak smorgasbord.

Before you begin to feel sorry for me, let me add that we were never far from a good meal or a glass of wine. Foie Gras, good conversation, plenty of stinky cheese and great bottles of wine emerged at every turn as our hosts morphed from impassioned oak zealots into the delightful French sensory hounds we know and love so well. We never went to bed hungry, and we never visited a great wine region without at last one visit to a superb producer.

Over the next six weeks I’ll relate more about this fascinating visit. So whether you wish to tune in for photos of magnificent, 250-year old oak trees or a cheese cart loaded with 100 different kinds of fromages, you’re sure to emerge hungry for lunch, and with more oak knowledge than you can shake a stick at.