Cooperage is little known to the general public. Although it is an ancestral art it is also a world of mystery, to which time and perfection are the keys.
Coopers, beneficiaries of over 2000 years of tradition, have always played an active role in the magical universe of wine. Their craft has evolved over the centuries to become a prominent symbol of refinement.
The Gauls mastered the production of barrels that they used for brewing their famous 'Cervoise' beer and also for filling with pitch before hurling them onto Roman armies.
Coopers in France founded corporations as far back as the 9th century. In 1268 they filed their statutes with the High Court for approval and these were further confirmed and consolidated by Charles VII, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the latter issuing a decree relative to forests in 1669 which is still applicable to this day.
The market of the French Federation of cooperage represents a turnover of 429 million euros and a volume of 615 385 barrels.
Over 68% of the national production is sold to export, mainly to the United States, Spain, Australia and Italy.
Indeed, climate change is enabling vine cultivation ever further north and in addition, the New World is continuing its considerable vineyard development.
The Tonneliers de France' contribute to the production of the finest wines and spirits and to achieve this they work closely with the leading estates and the best oenologists, adapting to individual requirements through the choice of wood, level of toasting and the application of those little secrets that are the privilege of seasoned professionals.
Coopers within the French Federation (52 members), which is presided by Jean-Luc SYLVAIN and structured around a number of committees (social, technical, staves and communication), work to ensure the long term future of their profession, while upholding their traditional heritage.
Maturing wine in a barrel is considered 'noble' ageing. An oak cask is capable of bringing out the best in a wine, of magnifying its intrinsic qualities and revealing every aromatic trait.
Time is the secret: from the time the oak tree is a sapling through to the moment the wine is poured into a glass, some 200 years will have passed by. In this respect one can say that time is very much a luxury.
Only 2% of global wine production is cask aged. This is therefore the most noble and the most prestigious share.
The mystery of the barrel begins with Mother Nature. The story starts in the forest where majestic trees in prestigious regions provide the ideal wood.
Powerful centenarian oaks from planted forests yield wood with perfect grain and golden colours, which slowly bring out the very best of a wine's aromatic potential.
The barrel wood produced from these oaks dries in the open air for as long as necessary to become solid and resistant while maintaining its suppleness and capacity to withstand the heating and toasting processes.
And it is precisely here that the cooper's skills, handed down from generation to generation, come in to play.
First of all the barrel wood is cut into stave lengths, these are then planed on the outside and slightly hollowed on the inside and tapered at each end in order to enable assembly into the rounded barrel shape.
The staves are measured and sorted to define their position in the barrel.
The next phase is 'raising' the barrel for which the staves are positioned upright with wider and narrower staves placed alternately to ensure optimal balance, held in place by a metal hoop which serves as a jig.
Then come the vital and spectacular steps of 'heating' and 'toasting': first of all the staves are heated by fire, steam or boiling water in order to help force them into the curved shape of the barrel.
Toasting fixes the shape of the staves once and for all and the heat from this unlocks the aromatic compounds from the oak.
The cooper's art involves giving the barrel the aromatic qualities required by the oenologist, which are essential factors in nurturing a wine's physical and taste characteristics: spices, vanilla, toasted bread, hazelnut...
After this process, the cooper fits the heads of the barrel, removes the assembly hoops and replaces them with the final metal hoops after having planed and sanded the outside of the barrel.
Before delivery, the barrel is tested for impermeability.
The barrel is now ready for its next role, that of being filled with wine which will gently exchange with the wood, becoming enriched with its tannins while being slowly oxygenated through the barrel walls.