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Barrels Are on a Roll in Champagne

by Jiles Halling / photos courtesy of La Tonnellerie de Champagne
They say that if you wait long enough things come round in a circle, and that seems to be true when it comes to trends in wine as well. Take Champagne for example: a hundred years ago every Champagne maker used oak barrels to age their wines, probably because they didn’t have many viable alternatives. Fast forwards a few decades and in the 1960s and 1970s almost everyone was throwing out their barrels and converting to stainless steel vats: purer, cleaner, easier to manage and, in short, the obvious way forward for any modern-minded Champagne maker at that time.

Denis Saint Arroman of La Tonnellerie de Champagne.

Now, 50 years later, although stainless steel is still very much in evidence, it’s oak that is back in fashion in a big way. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times we live in and the increasing preoccupation with all things natural and wholesome, which are often seen as belonging to days gone by. If the truth be told, stainless steel remains an indispensable part of wine making, but it’s not what people are talking about; stainless steel, or Inox as it’s called in France, just doesn’t seem to have “the soul” that more and more people are looking for.

All this is great news for Jérôme Viard and his business partner Denis Saint Arroman, who founded La Tonnellerie de Champagne, northeastern France’s only cooperage, back in 1998 just at the time when barrels were making a comeback. Whether they were visionaries or whether it was just luck is hard to say, but they certainly made the right choice at the right time and in business that’s usually a recipe for success. Today the cooperage is still very much an artisan-scale operation with just five employees. It produces some 1,000 new barrels per year (tiny compared to the largest cooperages) but it has delighted clients all over France, in the U.S., the U.K. and in several other countries too.

A visit to La Tonnellerie de Champagne really does underline the skill and complexity involved in producing oak barrels, not least because the number of possible variations in a barrel is staggering and, I suspect, not fully appreciated by many in the wine trade, let alone by the consumer.

First you have to select the type of oak you’re going to use and therefore the forest in which you’ll find it. There are three types of oak tree and many different forests in which to find them, although Jérôme usually works with forests near to or in the Champagne region. The finest wood comes from trees that have grown very slowly in poor soil and which therefore have a very fine grain.

When the tree trunks are delivered to the cooperage they first have to be split and then cut into staves after the unsuitable part of the trunk has been separated. Next the staves are stacked on pallets and left outside for anything up to four years so that the wind and rain can wash away the tannins in the wood.

The thickness of the staves determines the size of barrel or vat that is to be made. At La Tonnellerie de Champagne they make vats as large as 40 hectoliters, which are typically used to store reserve wines in a solera-type system, but the most popular sizes are much smaller: 205 liters for La Pièce Champenoise, 225 liters for La Pièce Bordelaise and 228 litres for La Pièce Bourguignonne.

At first sight it seems odd that each wine region should have its own standard barrel size, but there is in fact an explanation for each, even though some may perhaps be a bit speculative.

In Champagne the standard load for the grape press is 4,000 kg from which one may extract only 2050 litres of juice, i.e. 10 barrels of 205 litres each

In Bordeaux 9 hectolitres is the reference sales volume and that equals 4 x225 litre barrels.

In Burgundy 300 bottles each of 75cl would also imply a barrel of 225 liitres but Burgundy was traditionally, and often still is, sold in barrels, so the barrel has to be slightly larger so as to allow for loss of wine hence the 228 litres in La Pièce Bourguignonne.

Once it is formed a barrel receives a chauffe (toasting) before it can be filled with wine and a variety of different toasting options are available from short bursts of intense flame which produce more pronounced, caramelised flavors to long slow toasting on a low heat which is preferred in Champagne for the more subtle influence it has on the wine.

Jérôme Viard at work on a barrel.

Only then can the finished barrel can then be delivered to the winemaker. It sounds fairly simple but as Jérôme explained, the decision by a winemaker to work with oak marks the beginning of what could well be a 10 year project from the day the tree is felled to the day the Champagne is finally ready for sale, and that’s not counting the small matter of a minimum of 150 years that the tree has been growing. It seems a shame to cut down something so old and venerable but it’s important to point out that all the wood used by the Tonnellerie comes from sustainably managed forests so the balance of Nature is preserved.

All the barrels produced at La Tonnellerie de Champagne are tailor-made to the exact specifications of the winemaker, but even after so much preparation and so much work the number of possible variations means that there is no absolute guarantee that the wine will turn out exactly as was intended at the start, so why would any winemaker decide to embark on such a long project in the first place?

There are two reasons, both driven by the dictates of the market; one is related to the interests of the winemaker and the other to the demands of the consumer, but fortunately the two converge nicely to offer opportunities for all concerned.

Contrary to what one might assume a Champagne maker is not looking for a strong influence of oak in his or her wine. That is, in fact, the last thing they want; it would overpower the wine itself and this is the reason why the staves are weathered to dilute the tannin content of the wood. Rather the appeal of the barrels is the micro-oxygenation they allow between the wine in the barrel and the air outside. The result is a richer, softer texture in the wine and a magnification of its existing character plus a slight additional sweetness which reduces, or even eliminates, the need for any dosage in the Champagne. Creating Champagnes like this is a much more fulfilling experience for the more meticulous and committed Champagne makers.

Then there’s the fact that small-scale winemakers cannot compete directly with larger and more famous brands. Instead they have to find ways to differentiate and add value to their offer and producing handcrafted Champagnes, in relatively small quantities, from oak barrels allows them to do just that.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the fact that more and more consumers are looking for products, be they wine or anything else, that resonate with their desire for things that are wholesome, natural environmentally friendly and produced with care and skill. They are even prepared to pay a little extra for these products when they find them.

Finished barrels at La Tonnellerie de Champagne.

All this chimes in perfectly with the rising popularity of single vineyard Champagnes, low-dosage Champagnes and Champagnes that are the reflection of a specific terroir. Using an oak tree from a specific place in Champagne to make a barrel in Champagne that holds a wine that has been made from grapes grown in a specific plot of vineyard in a specific village in Champagne is the logical extension of this idea.

Whether this approach is logical or justified from the technical side of winemaking is almost beside the point. Oak barrels are seen as one way to put back into the wine some of the “soul” and some of the “natural touch” that may have been lost to stainless stee,l and as Jérôme Viard says: “There’s nothing more natural than a barrel: it’s the product of wood, water, wind, fire and the work of the cooper. That’s it.”





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