So much of winemaking is a time-consuming process, from the planting to the cultivation to the harvesting, fermenting and aging. An equally laborious and essential task, is barrel making. Over three years is required for the construction of a barrel. And if you calculate the length of time for an oak tree to grow – hundreds of years are involved.
France is the world leader in barrel making, producing more than 500,000 casks annually, for a market value of well over $400 million. There are 100 coopers – barrel makers – in France. One of the top manufacturers is Tonnellerie Sylvain in Libourne, Bordeaux. Rodrigo Luna, the company Export Manager, accompanies me as we walk through row after row of 6-foot tall, neatly-piled stacks of wood on the Sylvain property.
Most of the wood used for barrels comes from central France. These are the forest lands originally planted by Louis XIV, who wanted high-quality hardwood to build ships for the French navy. To this day, the best oak comes from this area. “This is an early example of forestry management,” explains Rodrigo.
The French government owns 40% of all forested land, including the original tracts planted by Louis XIV. Once a year, various areas are put on auction and companies, like Sylvain, bid on them. It’s a complicated, bureaucratic process. And very expensive. Half the cost of a barrel is in the purchase of timber – or around €400 for raw timber alone, since the cost of a finished barrel is €700-€1,000.
“Consistency is the most important thing,” Rodrigo continues. “So we try to always buy similar oak from similar plots. We don’t want to experiment with other woods or sources.”