I spent the last week in the French countryside for work – the Loire Valley, Burgundy and the Northern Rhone. The wine countryside(s). I was there to visit the forests, saw mill and cooperage of Ermitage barrel makers. I could easily write to you about the barrel making process, “once upon a time, in a forest far, far away…” however, that would be boring. So, linked below is jump to a photo slideshow that takes you through the barrel making process.
What you will see in this photo-essay of sorts is a snapshot of the forest, the selection of wood, work in the saw mill and cooperage…. from forest to finished product. To be dramatic, the making of a wine barrel can take up to 180 years. The trees of the French forests (Nevers, Allier, Troncais, Vosges, Bertranges, etc.) although 70% privately owned, are under the watchful eye of a government agency to protect and preserve the natural habitat and safeguard the industry. Oak trees, which the Agency deems suitable by age and quality, are harvested once a year, after October auctions. The age of the trees can be no less than 50 years and at their peak, 180 years old. The Agency releases an auction catalog broken down into parcels from each particular forest. The good coopers send their top arborists out to inspect the quality of the wood and estimate their bidding prices. Once the auction is completed, winning bidders have until March to harvest the selected trees from each parcel. Each parcel of forest comes to market every ten years or so. But unlike grape farms with diverse soils and micro-climates, it is pretty reliable that the quality and character of these forests remain pretty stable throughout.
When the trees are harvested, the wood will be processed almost immediately. However, the preliminary staves will be seasoned in the natural elements (air, wind, rain, snow) for 24 to 36 months. So, the photos that you will see are not one tree going from harvest to barrel room. The seasoning process along with the geography tends to be the determining factor to great barrel production. What you learn from tasting barrel samples in French caves (part 2 of the trip) is that it is not the level of toast that the barrel has to offer, but the wood itself. Just like winemaking, great forests will produce great barrels. Enjoy the photos and let me know if you have any questions. (Note: these photos were taken with my camera phone; so, please don't take offense to the quality, thanks.)
Dan Petroski is Assistant Winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.