Barrels, casks and tuns - the Champagne Houses maintain their taste for tradition
Since Roman times, the vineyards around Rheims have attracted the crafts that make the vessels to hold the wines. First there were the potters who made wine jars and amphora. Then came the barrel makers to compete with them. At the beginning of the 12th Century, it was Guillaume aux Blanches Mains who brought the fustaliers — cask-makers — and carpenters to Rheims and settled them in the new Couture quarter, with the coin minters other noisy trades. In 1373, the coopers of Rheims were granted their first articles and their importance grew. In 1750, there were 150 coopers in Rheims.
It was in this period that the first Champagne Houses were established and over the following century a good many craftsman barrel-makers would become cellar workers, working in the barrel-making or cask-making facilities that belonged to each House. Some Houses even owned oak and chestnut forests, from which they drew excellent oak for their barrels. It was well understood that the better and the more seasoned the cask, the better the aging and the less likely the risk of wine loss.
Champagne wine is not known for its easy-going nature. Second fermentation in the bottle will only bring out the wine’s character if the primary fermentation was flawlessly conducted. Ever since the dawn of winemaking, coopering has been a vital dimension of wine quality.
A powerful association of cavistes (cellar workers) and coopers was established in Rheims in 1830. This association still had 3,000 Rheims members in 1930. Meanwhile alongside the craft barrel-making maintained by each House emerged a whole new industry of coopers and specialist barrel-makers. They in their turn faced competition from the makers of tanks and wine tankers. Kessler, the specialist barrel works in Rheims’ Avenue Jean Jaures, closed down in 1953.
Coopers have a sharp eye for detail. They can immediately distinguish between an Argonne oak cask and an industrially-made barrel. They can identify each House’s barrels by the curve of their staves or the wood used for the bands. Their hands know the feel of a boujus (well-rounded cask), or a poor joint that needs attention. They will talk forever about their faithful tools: the jabloir (plane), colombe (inclined work bench), chien (tool for shaping the staves — rarely used these days), the herminette (adze) or the plane droite (flat drawknife)l.
In the sixties, the Champagne Houses gradually reduced their use of wood, while often keeping a certain quantity of casks in reserve for safety’s sake (such as for delicate wines unsuited to large barrels).
Like cork stoppers, wood barrels and casks allow a slow and natural micro-oxygenation that favours wine maturation.
For the new casks that are bought each year (mainly sourced from the Poitou-Charentes region), the first step is seasoning: eliminating excess tannins by filling the casks with ordinary musts then rinsing them thoroughly three or four days later. Old casks, for their part, have to be serviced before each harvest to prevent leakage or wine spoilage — usually by replacing a stave or a cask bottom that has deteriorated. The wooden bands on which the barrel is rolled also need retightening to prolong the life of the cask (sometimes for as long as 50 years). Every time you roll a 205l cask, you are rolling 250kg worth of barrel — and a cask rolls a lot in its lifetime. It has to be repositioned 8-9 times every year. After seasoning and sterilisation (done by burning a sulphur candle in the cask), the casks are ready to receive the new wine.
In the course of the first fermentation, House coopers keep a close watch on the wine to see how it develops, how it settles down (se tasse). The ullage is made up as often as necessary (a process known as ouiller); aeration is conducted where necessary. The wine is then drawn off, leaving behind its impurities. When nearly empty, each cask is drained to recover the lees, before cleaning and refilling. Eventually the time comes for blending, using designated barrels and reserve wines held in casks or tanks, based on the choices and recommendations of the cellar master and the House oenologists. The blend is then fined and returned to cask, contact with the oak serving to bring out the strength in the wine. It will remain in cask until tirage (bottling), after which it completes its development in Champagne bottles.
The work is as delicate as that special aroma that dominates the cellar. Matured in oak, these are Champagne wines that will delight even the most demanding and educated palate.