France 1.0: The Beauty of Bourgogne

We are alive!  And we are well.  So well, in fact, that we recently created a mini Life and Wine blogger (hence the prolonged absence).  For the sake of brevity, we shall call him Junior.  Junior rolled into our lives with a bang in August and has since kept us on our toes and busier than ever.

Junior's new role as Life and Wine' s mini correspondent.
Junior’s new role as Life and Wine’ s mini correspondent.

So while mom masters the art of “pumping and dumping” so that she can still taste and drink with the best of them, dad is figuring out how to rock the Ergo carrier and still look…well…like he’s in control (he claims that nothing is a chick magnet quite like a baby carrier at a tasting room bar).  But we digress…

Back to the reason that you’re here.  To read and learn about Life and Wine!  So, without further adieu, we present to you: France 1.0: The Beauty of Bourgogne.

There are a few special places in the world that truly embrace the full essence of the wine industry.  Far from being just a trade, these places live and breath wine.  Everything exists to support this passion, this industry, this art.  From the soiled boots of the grape growers, to the blistered hands of the cooperage workers, to the quaint, local wine shop, where an elderly man in glasses seems to know the history of every single bottle of wine on his shelves, few places so embody this as Bourgogne, France.

A trip to Bourgogne in the 21st century is apt to conjure images taken straight from a period piece.  As one travels south from the urban sprawl of Paris, the pastoral images of the French countryside are quick to wash away the mayhem of urban daily life.

The simple beauty of mustard fields.
The simple beauty of mustard fields.

The green hills, filled with yellow mustard and historic stone structures are so stereotypically quaint, that it’s easy to start exclaiming their virtues to regional neophytes.  For an expectant husband and wife traveling there this past May, it was difficult to not compare the scenery to many of the classic French children’s books (think: Madeleine, Le Petit Prince, and – our personal favorite – Babar).  Whether traveling by car or by train, the horizon is littered with images lifted directly from these pages.  Row after row of vineyards are tucked behind every hill.  Short, stocky vines grow together in tidy, yet rustic, rows.  It’s all so ridiculously perfect; it’s impossible for the clichés to not run rampant.

During this trip to France, our focus was simple:  a stay in Bourgogne to tour a few chateaus and a famed cooperage, followed by a trip south to Provence to replenish our wine cellar.  After a quick visit to Paris, we headed directly to Beaune, a characteristically sweet Bourgogne town, tucked next to the hills of the Côte d’Or.  Our final destination was actually Saint-Romain, an enclave of a few hundred residents just 15 minutes outside Beaune.  Situated atop a steep mountaintop, Saint-Romain is anything but modern.  Streets are only partly paved, the local single-room church appears to be lifted from a 14th century biopic, bread is sold daily from the trunk of a decrepit white van, and the seemingly endless stone walls are centuries older than the oldest structure in our beloved Napa Valley.  For those searching for the quintessential Bourgogne wine experience, this is it.

The quiet dawn of Saint-Romain.
The quiet dawn of Saint-Romain.

It was atop this little commune that we found ourselves staying in the guesthouse of François Frères, the local cooperage.  The French are no strangers to the painstaking process of constructing the perfect wine barrel.  However, until one actually witnesses this process first-hand, the true beauty cannot be fully experienced.  The time, effort and focus that go into fashioning each individual barrel are unparalleled.  For a true French barrel to be made, the construction process can last anywhere from two to four years.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Two to four years.  (The next time that you hear that a wine was aged in French Oak, please pay a moment of homage to the folks who crafted it.  Seriously.  It’s no joke.)

So how are these years spent?

It all starts with an auction.  An auction, you say?  An auction of what?  The usage rights to large hectares of trees.  Yep, trees.  Tall, green, leafy trees.  And this being France, government-managed and grown trees, to be exact.  Officially, the French Oak trees must be 100 to 200 years old.  (You see: the French take their winemaking very seriously.  Even the trees have pedigree.) Once these rights are purchased, the trees are transported to the cooperage, where they are meticulously trimmed, sliced, and chopped.  Of the original tree, only 20% of the each trunk is lucky enough to be ultimately transformed into a barrel; the remaining 80% ends up being sold for firewood or for use in paper products or heating the cooperage.

The trunks of authentic French Oak.
The trunks of authentic French Oak.

Once the initial sawing of the tree is done, the rough staves are stacked criss-cross in pallets and put outside in row after row of intricately stacked wood that resembles a HUGE Jenga tower.  And this is where it gets interesting.  For two to four years, the staves stay right there.  Sitting.  Marinating.  Soaking up the elements.  Outside, they are subject to rain, sleet, sun, and snow (in Bourgogne, this equates to about 600 millimeters of rain per year).  Saint Romain, in particular, benefits from a microclimate that allows for the wood to be seasoned naturally.  This weathering is how tannins are created.  And it’s these tannins that are eventually transferred to wine.

As one walks through the towering rows of aging staves, the ground is etched with the silky aftermath of the wood’s tannins.  As the locals say, “After a rain, the tainnins run free, like oil.”  During our visit, France – as a whole – was experiencing an uncommon amount of rain.  Bourgogne was no exception.    One could literally smell the flavor in the air.  It is this exposure to the natural elements that gives the staves their flavor and complexity.  And this, dear reader, is why French Oak is so highly coveted.

Consider this:  In theory, a barrel can be constructed anywhere, with virtually any type of wood.  But for wine to sit in any such barrel means that it is going to pull flavors from said barrel…regardless if they are desirable flavors or not.  Wine, in a sense, adopts the flavors and characteristics of the barrel.  Your wine will only be as good as your barrel.  Sub-par barrels equal sub-par wine.

French Oak staves. The equivalent to bars of gold?
French Oak staves. The equivalent to bars of gold?

The important role of cooperages are so often overlooked in the mass-produced American wine market.  Sure, we hear snippets of aficionados exclaiming the virtues of the aging process, but for the majority of consumers, this tidbit washes right over their heads.  American?  French?  Hungarian?  What’s the difference?  Does it even matter?

Spend five minutes at François Frères and the answer becomes obvious. Yes.  Yes, it matters a whole damn lot.

In a nutshell, here’s how the process goes:

(1)  French Oak trees are harvested from government-managed forests;

(2)  The trunks of the trees are sawed into staves;

(3)  The staves are assorted into pallets and left outside to age for two to four years;

Burn, baby, burn!
Burn, baby, burn!

(4)  Once the optimal age has been achieved, the staves are brought inside and shaved into a uniform pattern;

(5)  The staves are hammered together with a thick, circular metal ring, forming the base of the barrel;

(6)  The barrel is then placed over a fire and heated for 30 minutes;

(7)  Water is intermittently sprayed on the barrel, creating humidity that, in turns, makes the barrel flexible, allowing it to be bent into shape;

(8)  A second thick, circular metal ring is then hammered onto the other side of the staves, creating the familiar form and shape of the barrel;

(9)  The barrel is then placed over a fire for a second time.  This time the purpose is to toast the barrel to the specifications of the winemaker using it;

(10)  The barrel then goes through a variety of processes to improve the aesthetics.  These include smoothing out and shining the wood, as well as swapping out the metal rings for fresh and shiny ones;

(11)  Once the barrel has a new shine to it, it is rolled over to a station where lids are fashioned.  There, a gluten-free putty is used to coat the inner grooves and secure the lid;

(12)  Each barrel is then filled with water to test for leaks;

(13)  And once it passes quality assurance….Voila! A barrel is made and shipped to your favorite local winemaker.  Simple, right?

Gluten free paste used to seal barrel lids.
Gluten free paste used to seal barrel lids.

After seeing the immense care and attention to detail of the process, you realize that barrel making is not to be taken lightly.  After having spent time with the amazing folks at François Frères, it’s our sincere wish that more folks become familiar with the beauty of cooperages and the art they make.  They are, in many ways, just as amazing as wineries themselves.

So the next time that you take a sip of wine and find yourself remarking on the tannins and complexity….pause for a moment to salute the barrel makers.  If you’re loving the wine, they’ve done their job.

Next stop:  Provence.  Michael behind the wheel of a rental car in France = AWESOME.  Put that seat belt on and let ‘er rip!

Again, please forgive us for our recent lapse of communication.  It wasn’t just a baby that kept us deficient in posting…it was life, in general.  But we are hopping back on the wagon and hope to be a much more familiar sight in your newsfeeds from now on.  So bear with us as we learn to juggle an infant, careers, life interests, and our continued exploration of the wine industry.

Leave a Reply