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Santa’s Workshop for Wine Lovers

It was an exciting week for us in Bordeaux, which included a tour of the Sylvain Tonnellerie (barrel-making factory). Sylvain is one of the world’s premier tonnelleries and their barrels can be found in wineries around the world. In their warehouse, we saw barrels tagged for delivery to Chateau Angelus (France), Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (Napa Valley, California), and other wineries in Australia, Italy, and around the world. Sylvain produces approximately 120 barrels per day, or 33,000 per year, which represents about 10% of the total French Oak barrel production.

Our Chilean born, trilingual tour guide explained how the entire wood buying and barrel making process works. Each year France’s national forest service selects and releases a catalogue of mature oak trees (of two varieties) to be sold from their forests. The trees are in the neighborhood of 250-350 years old. The barrel makers are given time so that their inspectors can visit the different forests and then the trees go up for sale. These trees are not planted but grow naturally. As the older, taller trees are cleared each year, the younger trees gain access to more sunlight, which aids in their growth. Several months after the sale, when the weather cools and the sap runs into the roots of the tree, the winning buyers go back the forests to collect their wood.

Sylvain purchases trees exclusively from three forests in eastern, central, and western France. When they arrive at the Sylvain factory, the trees are split, shaped into staves, seasoned (air dried for 24-36 months), then bent and formed into barrels. Sylvain takes extreme care in every step of the process. On average, only 20% of the wood from each tree is suitable for barrel making and the rest is used for furniture and other items. Each piece of wood is inspected for knots, worm/insect damage, and splits, and the wood is sorted according the width of each ring. The trees with the tightest/smallest rings are the most prized and are used in the premium barrels.

One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the toasting of the barrels. While many of the workers in the tonnellerie switch positions from day to day, the “toast masters” are specialists and practice the same craft each day. Technology has certainly made certain parts of the barrel making process easier, but the toasting is still done by hand, the old fashioned way.

It was a great tour and a really interesting process to see. France produces the lion’s share of the world’s wine barrels so it is great to see that they have found a way to do it sustainably. Of course, ending the tour at Sylvain’s winery with a tasting and lunch didn’t hurt our opinion of them either.

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