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Understanding Oak: A Travelogue

Almost all great wines, red and white, are aged in oak. To truly understand oak's influence, Lettie Teague makes a pilgrimage to one of France's most elite cooperages and sees just what goes into the making of a world-class barrel.

Long ago, i spent a summer chopping down trees in a forest—not as an act of willful destruction but as part of my job with the Youth Conservation Corps. I didn't think much about forests after that, at least not until I began drinking wine. In the world of wine, there are forests that matter (and naturally, they all belong to the French). They're forests with names like Tronçais, Allier and Nevers, and they're the source of the best wine barrels in the world.

I first found them referenced on the back labels of bottles—"This wine was aged in oak from Allier and Nevers." They sounded like they belonged in a romantic French novel, or maybe even a Disney cartoon. (Wouldn't Disney fairies live in a forest named Nevers?) Many years later, after I'd progressed from a mere reader of back labels to a wine professional, I found the names of these forests emblazoned on the barrels themselves.

I also found plenty of winemakers willing to discuss them (the barrels, not the forests), although that's become harder in recent years; winemakers today only want to talk about vineyards. "My wines are made in the vineyard" is what they all say, as if they just went out and collected the fruit. Barrels, at least as a topic, have become déclassé and "oak" practically a pejorative word. "That wine has too much oak" is a favorite denunciatory phrase.

Yet, for all this, there isn't a single great red wine I know of that doesn't require time in a barrel. This is true of most great white wines as well, especially Chardonnay. (Riesling is the most famous exception to this rule.)

The French know how important oak is to a wine; in fact, the word they employ to describe a wine's time in barrel, élevage, is the same one they use to describe raising a child. It's as accurate as it is telling: Barrels shape a wine's character the way parents shape a child's personality, for better or worse. Like a bad upbringing, the wrong barrel regime can be detrimental, as any­one who has tasted an over­oaked wine can attest.

Barrels are also of great financial consequence; a large part of a winery's budget is often allotted to them. A high-quality new French oak barrel costs nearly $1,000; a new Amer­ican oak barrel about half as much—and those figures may be multiplied dozens, even hundreds, of times, depending on a winery's production size and how much of the wine goes into new wood. Excluding Australia and Spain, most of the world's wineries, including those in the U.S., use French oak, as its flavors are more subtle than American wood. However, plenty of winemakers are experiment­ing with oak from places like Hungary, Slovenia and even Russia, as well.

These were some of the facts I already knew when I met with Mel Knox a few years ago. Although I managed to slip a few into our conversation, it was like trying to impress the Pope by reciting a proverb or two. That's because Mel knows more about barrels than anyone else in America. This San Francisco–based "barrel broker to the stars" sells to wineries all over California and pretty much everywhere else in the States. A short, bespectacled man with a ready laugh and an apparent fondness for loudly checked shirts, Mel represents two cooperages producing some of the world's most sought-after barrels: François Frères Tonnellerie of Burgundy and Taransaud Tonnellerie of Bordeaux.

Winemaker David Ramey, said Mel, was a big François Frères fan: "And Dave knows as much about barrels as I do. Maybe more. You should really talk to Dave."

Dave Ramey uses new oak in his wines, but his touch has always been light. I've known and admired him for years; he was the head winemaker for many important California wineries, including Matanzas Creek and Rudd. He now makes big, rich but not too oaky single-vineyard Chardonnays (Hyde and Hudson) under his own Sonoma label, as well as several Napa reds, including an impressive Cabernet from Jericho Canyon. But Ramey isn't just a good winemaker, he's also a philosophical man.

"I'm not really much into barrels these days," was the first thing Ramey said when I called. "I use a lot less new oak now than I used to." It wasn't an auspicious start. Was he going to say something about how all that mattered was the fruit? "The amount of oak really depends on the wine," he continued.

Ramey has always used French oak to ferment and age his wines. But recently he's been experimenting with Hungarian oak, because it's a lot like French oak in character but costs half as much. As Ramey said, "French and Hungar­ian oak are the same species. American oak is a different species; the grain isn't as tight. And," he added, "American oak has more assertive flavors—banana, coconut, vanilla—although extended aging can diminish them."

Ramey has been playing around with oak since the mid-'80s, when he was winemaker at Matanzas Creek. One of these trials involved a tasting of wines aged in barrels from five different cooperages and wines aged in barrels from five different forests. "The differences between forests were so slight as to be undetectable," he maintained. "But the differences between cooperages were profound."

When Ramey and I met, he'd put together a little exper­i­mental tasting for me. "I have five wines aged in barrels from one cooperage, Demptos [the Napa branch of François Frères], and five from Taransaud, all made with dif­ferent kinds of wood—French, Hungarian and American," he announced. The wines were Chardonnay and Syrah.

Ramey and I both found only slight differences between the French barrels, and more significant differences between the two cooperages. "The Taransauds don't have the same sweetness as the Demptoses," he said, "And they have a little more structure." The differences between the French and American barrels, however, were profound. The wine in American oak tasted much sweeter than the French. The Hungarian was somewhere in between the two. "You know, Taransaud doesn't even specify where their barrels are made," remarked Ramey.

But what of the winemakers who insist on barrels from Tronçais or Allier? Were they just dupes of some fast- talking barrel salesman, or did these barrels really, despite Ramey's opinion, make a difference in the taste of a wine? I needed to find out for myself.

When i told max gigandet, the Burgundy-based sales director of François Frères, of my plan to see the forest and visit François Frères, he warned me, "It's a three-hour drive from Beaune to Tronçais." Not only is François Frères the closest cooperage to Tronçais, it also supplies barrels to some of the greatest winemakers and wineries in the world—not just Californians like Ramey, but also wineries in Italy and Australia and just about every important Burgundy domaine, including Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

I told Max, an energetic fellow in severe black plastic eyewear, that I didn't mind how long the trip would take, and he gallantly offered to drive. When he arrived at my Beaune hotel early the next morning, Véronique Drouhin was already in the back seat of his car. "Max told me you were going to Tronçais, and I asked if I could come along," said Véronique, an attractive blonde who sounded remarkably cheerful at the idea of a six-hour ride. "I've never been there, and I've always wanted to go," she confided. "I've always wanted to see how the forest is managed; after all, it's a big part of what we do."

The Drouhins are one of Burgundy's most important winemaking families, and they have a unique relationship with François Frères. They buy their barrels from the company (there is a "Drouhin barrel" with special chestnut hoops) and also age their own wood and deliver it to François Frères when it's ready to be made into barrels. I learned during the course of our very long drive that barrel wood has to be aged, or "seasoned," a minimum amount of time to acquire the desired flavors. Some coop­erages may age it for as little as two years, although better cooperages like François Frères prefer three, and some winemakers even specify four.

We reached Tronçais in a decidedly nondramatic manner: We simply drove in. The Tronçais forest, some 20,000 acres, is also a recreational area, so along with the trees were signs about camping and picnics and the proper parking of cars. "The forest is like a monument in France," said Max appreciatively.

Max had arranged for us to meet Bruno Jubera, the manager of the Tronçais forest, but first we would rendezvous with Fabien Henrion at the François Frères stave mill, in the heart of Tronçais. "Fabien is one of three people in our company whose job it is to look for logs," Max explained. It sounded like a job a nine-year-old boy would want.

And yet the right log, as I learned, is critical to the making of a barrel. Only the best logs can produce proper barrel staves (the wood that comprises a barrel). The grain must be straight and tight, without knots or imperfections, both of which could cause the barrel to leak. The grain is all-important, and this is the fame of Tronçais: Its trees have a very tight grain. The tighter the grain, the higher the wine's rate of oxidation. And oxygen is considered very important in the evolution of a fine wine; it is a living thing, after all. As Ramey had said to me, "The oxidation determines the elevation of the wine."

Max went off in search of Fabien, leaving Véronique and me next to a tower of logs. A storm of sawdust blew through the air, but Véronique appeared content, albeit a bit dusty. I moved away from the dust and ended up in a fine mist of water instead.

"The logs have to be sprayed per­iodically through the summer to keep the wood from cracking," Max explained upon his return, accompanied by Fabien. A tall, broad-shouldered fellow with an open expression, Fabien looked like a man well suited to a life among logs. "Fabien is in the forest nearly every day," said Max. "He can find the straightest trees with the tightest grain." Fabien had been sourcing logs for François Frères for more than a decade.

Did he have a favorite forest? Was it Tronçais? Fabien smiled. "Bercé," he replied, naming a forest in the Loire. Why was that? He shrugged in reply. I wondered, could Fabien identify a wine made in a Bercé barrel versus one in Tronçais? But he had already gone back into the mill.

As a log-spotter, Fabien visited all the forests in France regularly and made note of the trees that he liked that were going to be offered for sale. (There are three wood auctions a year in France—two in the winter, one in the spring.) Sometimes Fabien left little markers on tree trunks, so he would know what logs he was bidding on. Apparently even he can't tell one log from another in the heat of an auction.

The bids are sealed and submitted before the auction begins; only French citizens can bid on trees. Did people from other countries try to place bids? "Some Germans tried to a few years ago," Max replied darkly. This was a bit of a scandal. And sometimes, there is talk of there being more Tronçais in the market than there was wood. (I'd heard of fraudulent bottles of Pétrus and Latour. But fraudulent wood?)

Fabien came along for our meeting with Jubera, who was dressed in forest-appropriate green and brown, with a Boy Scout–like patch on one shoulder: ONF (Office National des Forêts). Jubera decides which trees should be cut down and when. He showed us his color-coded map of Tronçais, which notes the age of the trees and designates the sections that will be left or cut down. (New trees are not replanted but allowed to grow naturally.) The trees we were standing under, said Jubera, would be harvested in 2150, when they were between 150 and 200 years old. François Frères favors the younger trees: The older ones are more likely to impart bitter flavors.

Max looked dolorous at the thought of the passage of so much time. "We won't be around anymore," he said. Vér­onique took a different view. "Ima­gine making decisions about something that your grandchildren will be alive to see," she said wonderingly.

I was sorry Véronique didn't come along to the François Frères cooperage in Saint-Romain the following day, but, as she explained, she had been there many times before. That was another fact that surprised me: Wine­makers from all over the world, not just Burgundy, regularly visit François Frères. Saint-Romain is a tiny village located just a few miles south of Beaune. It's set atop a valley, its windy position quite desirable for seasoning wood. In fact, the François family built their cooperage there in 1910 because of the location.

The cooperage, a large, modern struc­ture, was nearly obscured by wood. In fact, there was so much wood, I thought Max had driven into a lumberyard by mistake—except no lumberyard ever smelled so good, with the sweet and smoky scent of toasted wood.

Inside the cooperage was a caco­phony of sound: Men were sawing and shaving and shaping barrels. Although it was only 9 in the morning, they'd been at it for two hours. "We have to start earlier in the morning this year, because the harvest in Burgundy will be early this year," Max explained. The cooperage produces 150 barrels every day, or about three barrels per man.

Our first stop was the toasting room, an enclosed room off the large open room where most of the coopers worked. This was where the shaped barrels (the staves fitted into the shape of a barrel) were sent for bending and toasting. After the bending (to bring out the wood's natural sweet­ness), the barrel was given to the toasting brigade, a group of coopers in muscle T-shirts who tended the fire inside of each barrel.

Barrel-toasting, according to Max, was one of the secrets of François Frères. Toasting was also a favorite topic among winemakers when they (used to) talk about barrels. There are various ways in which a barrel can be toasted, and according to the length of time it spends over the fire, it might have a light, medium or heavy toast. Some winemakers will specify what they want, while others, like Ramey, leave it up to the cooperage. But the toast is important; it imparts as much flavor as the type of wood, if not more. A delicate wine in a heavily toasted barrel is likely to taste of little but wood.

After a stop in the tasting room, Max and I took a tour of the rest of the cooperage. One cooper was fitting metal hoops over a barrel (the traditional number is eight). Another was intently coating a barrel with flour and water. "That protects against leaks," Max said. "But because it's not kosher, we had to find a substitute for a winery in the Golan Heights." Finally we came to the shipping room, where a man was neatly wrapping each barrel in plastic. "Pretty cushy job," I remarked, thinking of the men in the toasting room.

"He doesn't do that every day," Max replied. "Everyone changes jobs every day. Everyone but Frederic," Max added, naming the man with large forearms we'd passed on our way through the toasting room. "Frederic stays in the toasting room." I wondered what Frederic had done to deserve such a fate, but Max assured me it was because Frederic was so good. I wondered if Frederic regretted his particular skill.

At the end of our tour Max took me outside for a closer look at the wood, which now looked less like a lumberyard and more like a fortress, arranged as high as a three-story house. Max held out a piece of paper attached to a plank: "three-year-old Tronçais, Archery Sum­mit, Oregon." Some wineries purchased their wood and had the coop­erage hold it for years. I checked out a few neighboring tags: Pine Ridge in Napa; Gantenbein, the top Swiss Pinot producer; and, in a section all by itself, the wood destined for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Could Max tell from just tasting a wine where the barrel wood had come from? He could not. In fact, he recalled one such tasting with some winemakers in California (no winemakers seemed to do this in France). "We tasted barrels from Allier, Tronçais and Nevers, but no one could tell one from the other, just that they all were great."

Wasn't there anyone who could tell the difference between one forest and another? Had all that back-label business just been marketing and hype? Before I left Burgundy, there was one man I wanted to ask: Aubert de Villaine, the director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which the coop­erage's proprietor, Jean François, had compared to Tronçais ("Tron­çais is the DRC of forests," he had said). If anyone could tell the difference between the wood of one forest and another, surely it was the brilliant Aubert de Villaine.

I put the question to de Villaine, a tall, aristocratic man, the next morning at DRC. He considered my question. Could he tell which forest a barrel was from? "A wine will taste different in Tronçais or Allier," he replied. "But," he added, "if the wine has the right density in the vineyard, it takes over the differences. What matters most is not the forest but the tightness of the grain."

So the grain was the grail, not the forest. And the quest for it was every bit as urgent as the search for great fruit. In fact, a great wine and a great barrel seemed to have much in common: Both required meticulous sourcing and very low yields (so little of Fabien's logs, after all, made it into a barrel), and both were painstakingly made by hand. If only the winemakers who no longer liked to talk about barrels realized what went into their creation, maybe they'd want to discuss them again. But for now, the secret of how much a great barrel and a great cooperage mattered belonged to me—and the hundreds of clients of François Frères.

Published October 2007
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