Seguin Moreau Entrance SignOn July 14th, Bastille Day, members of Women for WineSense, along with their guests, gathered at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage to celebrate France’s Independence Day and learn a bit about its long history and the barrel’s relationship with wine.

Kicking off the presentation while attendees enjoyed Valley of the Moon’s Sonoma County 2009 Pinot Blanc and crepes was Seguin Moreau’s President, François Peltereau-Villeneuve, discussing the history of barrel-making as well as its current usage.

We were all surprised to hear from him that only 2% of all wine produced globally is aged in barrels. The vast majority of wine produced is aged in other vessels, such as tanks made from concrete or stainless steel (if aged at all). Considering that wooden barrels have been used to store wine for upwards of 2,000 years, from Rome’s years of glory to the present, you might have thought market penetration would be much greater by now!

In point of fact, there was a time when demand for oak was nearly outstripping supply. The ascent of oak barrels for wine storage had its beginnings in the chateaux cellars and for transporting wine on boats. In addition, France’s oak forests were heavily logged for building military ships.

Audience Listening to Seguin Moreau CEOJust imagine: Something round in shape is simply easier to transport when your FedEx truck is driven by a horse with a cart. And if the barrels, heavy as they are, were square in shape, there’d be no moving them by hand either. Knowing what a beating product took in transportation (not unlike today!), barrels designated for transport had thicker staves, to protect them and the product on their journey to the end destination.

This demand, coupled with the fact that French oak trees cannot be harvested until maturity, around 100-150 years old, placed enormous stress upon France’s forests. What if there were no oaks left to make wine barrels? Mon Dieu! And so the French government stepped in to regulate the sustainability of their forests, though originally to ensure a consistent supply of timber for the warships. Now the ONF, or French National Forests Office, administers the sale of the regulated oak wood.

Fast forward a few centuries and the demand for wine barrels dropped dramatically after World War I and during  Prohibition in the U.S. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that demand picked up again. What with good winemaking skills that had dipped precipitously during Prohibition, Americans weren’t aging wine much—in oak, redwood, concrete or anything. The use of oak barrels for fermenting and aging in the United States came hand in hand with the boom of the Napa Valley. It wasn’t until Robert Mondavi advocated a return to Old World winemaking practices in the 1960s that a resurgence in demand began.

Enjoying the bright and refreshing 2008 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc with fresh crepes, Seguin Moreau’s leader continued on about modern barrels. Recently developed and introduced to the market, Seguin Moreau’s Fraîcheur barrels are made with acacia wood heads (and French oak staves), imparting unique floral and fresh characteristics. Some winemakers find this ideal for their white wines.

Francois Peltereau-Villeneuve

Francois Peltereau-Villeneuve

Throughout Mr. Peltereau-Villeneuve’s commentary, attendees asked lots of questions about barrel-making and the winemaker’s interaction and training with the barrels. We were surprised to learn that in the U.S. there is almost no schooling on the myriad effects of oak and toasting levels on the wine. And Stephane Vivier, winemaker of our third wine: 2010 Vivier Rosé of Pinot Noir, chimed in to mention that he received but four hours of training about wine and barrels in Dijon, France.

Stephane indicated that winemaking is a life-long learning process, and the winemaker experiments with different barrels, toasting levels and cooperages (they all have different styles) with his (or her!) wine over many vintages to find the right mix of barrels. Eventually winemakers cull down barrel selection to the ones that consistently work for them and the wines’ styles using oak to accentuate the wine and to lift it—but in the background.

Enjoying our first French wine of the evening, St. Louis Chardonnay VDP Comte Tolosan 2009, Chris Hansen, Seguin Moreau’s sales manager, explained it is common for wineries to purchase barrels from a number of different cooperages. This is so that they can mix and match the various cooperages’ wood and toasting styles with their wine for the aging process.

Each vintage is racked into a variety of barrels from new to one-use (one to three years of age) to neutral (18 months or older) from a variety of cooperages. From this mix the winemaker produces the final blend. And, of course, each wine and each vintage is produced from vines under different geologic and climatic conditions – just as the wood from which the barrels are made were grown with different conditions.

Combined with the fact that the atmospheric pressure present at different times of the day will cause the fire (and thus the toasting of the wood) to vary, the cooper has to be very skilled to take this into consideration in order to ensure consistency in toasting wood. 

All cooperages have different standards for toasting. There is no recipe and thus no industry standard as to what makes up light, medium or heavy toast in a barrel. Then there are often different barrel sizes for different varietals. For example, Burgundy barrels (60 gal.) are most often used to age Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other white wines. Burgundy barrels usually receive Medium Long toasting. Traditionally, Bordeaux barrels (59 gal. – names originated from their corresponding region) are for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other red wines. The result of all these options? About a million or more possibilities in aromas and flavors for the finished wine!

Wrapping up his presentation while guests enjoyed the final, French wine, Chateau La Tarciere Muscadet 2009 Sèvre & Maine, Sur Lie, along with some heavenly sugared lemon crepes, François’s key take-away point was that the greatest barrel, the best wood, cannot make bad grapes into great wine. Without the finest grapes to begin with the barrel cannot transform the wine into superb wine.

As some attendees moved into to another room to watch a video about Seguin Moreau’s forest-harvest-to-barrel-cellar product, others commented how astounded they were “that any consistency can be achieved in the barrel wood and fruit interactions given the number of variations at play in the wood alone!”

Some were surprised to hear barrels came from other countries. Besides France, barrels are made from oak trees in America, Hungry, Russia and other European countries.

One thing was clear as guests wound up their visit: There’s a lot to learn about wine barrels, and some of them will return to Seguin Moreau soak up more knowledge on the nuances of the wine barrel.

About Seguin Moreau

Their main cooperage is in Merpins, in Bordeaux. They also have a cooperage in Burgundy, which was established in 1991 in an old grain cooperative—in the center of the town of Chagny, next to the legendary vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet. And Women for WineSense attendees visited at the Napa cooperage, which was established in 1994 to serve Californian and U.S. winemakers.

For more information, visit Seguin Moreau’s website or view one of many videos on their barrel-making process on YouTube. Many thanks to Lynae Anderson for her expertise on Seguin Moreau and the art of barrel-making for this article!