They are now only 400 artisan coopers across France, despite the fact that the cooper is the winegrower’s essential ally.
Without him, there are no barrels in which to mature and age wines. The custodians of ancient techniques, present-day coopers have an NVQ in cooperage. Although workshops are mechanised, the cooper plays an essential part in the fabrication process as he is the only one to master the tiniest details required for producing quality barrels.
Equipped with a hammer and a punch, he must be clever, strong and patient. Nobody becomes a cooper overnight and, likewise, it takes two years of drying time between the choice of wood and its use. Planks are then cut from stave wood and shaped to obtain staves which are carefully inspected by the cooper seven times before being heated to form the body of the barrel. To be suitable for use, they must be uniform, smooth and faultless. The craftsman then begins to assemble the barrel, referred to in French as ‘mise en rose’. He then places circles around the staves to give them their initial cylindrical shape. At this stage, only the bottom of the barrel is formed. The cooper must heat the top of the staves so that they can be curved. Once the barrel has taken shape, he integrates the bottom and the plug before strapping the wood.
Then begins a long process of polishing and heating: this final stage is pivotal to the aromas of the wine. The charring of the wood must be precise so that notes of vanilla, hazelnut or smoke can develop. The charring phase is a closely kept secret. Each craftsman protects his expertise, thereby putting part of his soul into his barrels.
By Alexandra Reveillon