1- A terroir wood for your barrels

After 30 years of experience in cooperage, Charles Cavin did not choose his forest at haphazard, or a vague “back to basics” desire.

“The good winegrower lives among the vines and the good cooper lives among the woods.”
The Châtillonnais where we established ourselves actually shelters some very fine grain wood, which is perfect for our casks. Hence, we produce “terroir barrels”.

Parcels selections from the Châtillonnais in Burgundy

The complementarity between barrels and wine can be found in the similarities that oak and vine maintain with each other. These two plants have qualities derived from the from the terroir, which we can define as the meeting between a land, a plant and humans.

Just like the vine that we plant in poor soils, to get the best possible grapes, oak needs to suffer a bit in order to mature into finesse. The more the tree gets a rough ride, the finer its grain will be.

The grain corresponds to the rings, which itself is the layers of new wood that the tree adds every year. The slow growth of common oaks from the Châtillonnais translates into a incomparable thinness.

Our forest is actually located on a limestone plateau that forces the oak to grow slowly and to thus to reach its full potential . The climate under continental influence and the hilly landscape come with this subtle equilibrium of roughness, without falling into the extremes of the more northern areas of France and Europe.

Grain titghtness at the service of your wines

The ageing in barrels happens thanks to a micro-oxygenation of the wine. These air exchanges occur through the wood and must be as slow and as delicate as possible. The grain tightness acts directly on these processes and the Châtillonnais oaks provide an ideal wood.

The geological factor guarantees a regularity, along with a certain “minerality” that winemakers often find in their wines aged in our barrels, including (and especially) when their parcels have no limestone.

The Châtillonnais in Burgundy: a unique terroir

Each forest has its particularity and grain tightness can evolve from factors other than geology: hydric deficit, population density, altitude or harshness of the climate. Hence, the fine grain of an oak from the Tronçais or Cîteaux forests will often be due to the competition among trees, whereas in the crystalline Vosges, it will be low temperatures.

Beyond the fickle aspect of these factors, organoleptic differences are caused by these variations. The Tronçais was thus very popular during the “oaky wines” fad, thanks to their vanilla aromatics, and the icy Vosges produce more tensed and austere wines, if its staves are not assembled with other forest origins. Each terroir has its specificity.

The Châtillonnais in Burgundy will be the first National Park forest

The unique character of our beloved terroir is about to be recognized. The Châtillonnais will become the 11th French National Park in 2019, and it will be the only one to obtain this grant for its forest heritage.

The project announced by François Fillon in 2009 aims to promote and protect the exceptional characters of our leafy massifs, where the oak counts for a big part. It will thus be named: “Parc national des forêts de Champagne et Bourgogne”.

Cavin Classic or Aphrodite: blend VS parcellar

Even if we get our wood almost exclusively from Burgundy, we also turn ourselves towards other elegant terroirs, such as Darney. However, our Cavin Classic range remains under strong burgundian influence.

On the other side, our Cavin Aphrodite range is elaborated from parcel selections that originate 100% from the Châtillonnais. These limited editions suit the elaboration of wines and spirits that demand high finesse and precision, along with slow ageing which does not hurry the wine maturation process and lets it reach its full potential.

To note: all our trunks are cut in the heart of the winter, once the sap faded out. This guarantees a non-sappy wood, which is optimal for cooperage.


 

2- Our stave mill works on the trunks

At this stage, we shape the wood from the tree to transform it into staves, that are the raw boards from which the final staves will be cut.

Fine wood selection: we only keep 20%

Our stave miller then receives the healthy logs and cuts them into blocks with a height slightly superior to the barrel. He then chops them into quarters, on which he traces the cutting lines of the future staves. During this operation, he carefully removes the bark, the sapwood and the heart of the trunk, in order to only keep the heartwood (duramen). This process is laborious and very time consuming.

On top of this work, to make a great barrel, note that we need to keep only the best parts of the oak. This means a staggering 80% of waste : we need 5m³ of oak to produce 1m³ of final staves. Our concerns for the environment lead us to recycle all these wood shavings, by using them in heating systems, for example.

Good to know: Note that French oak is always chopped rather than sawn, contrary to its American cousin. This process is necessary to guarantee the waterproofness of the future barrel, along with the precious micro-oxygenation. It is also more costly as the sawing allows to keep more wood.

 

3- Seasoning of the wood during 24 to 48 months

The other big advantage of the Châtillonnais, beyond its forest terroir, hides in its climate which is ideal for wood seasoning.

This process can be considered as a maturation, just like ageing for the wine where complex interactions with the environment make new qualities appear.

Châtillonnais climate in Burgundy: the ideal atmosphere

On our plateau situated in the North of Burgundy, the omnipresence of rain, wind and fog allows a 100% natural seasoning of the wood. We don’t need to water or artificial ventilation. The nature does this on its own.

Our pictures might be sunny but our local Châtillonnais microclimate records average temperatures that are much lower than in Beaune or Dijon, which are our neighbouring cities from Burgundy. Rainfalls are superior from 25 to 30%, compared to the rest of the region!

Here is how the geographer Geneviève Pierre describes our climate in her book (Agriculture dépendante et agriculture durable, publication de la Sorbonne, 2004):

The Châtillonnais plateau, at a 350 meter altitude, records the same average temperatures as the central Morvan, at more than 600 meters. (…)

The continental nature affirms itself through temperatures. The average annual temperature is quite low: 9,5°C in Baigneux-les-Juifs.

The Cavin Coopers are actually situated just 4km from Baigneux-les-Juifs, in the heart of this natural apparatus which suits the seasoning of the staves wood. These conditions allow us to “take the time” without altering the oak.

A wood seasoning under direct control

Above all, our staves are located on site, at our cooperage. We can therefore track their evolution in real time, in a direct way. Exactly like a winemaker who ages his wine all by himself, in his cellar and without relying on faraway intermediaries, or air conditioners.

During this slow maturation, the oak goes from 70-80% humidity rate to 14-16%. The tannin that threatens to alter the wine is evacuated: it flows out from the aerated piles of wood. The staves are actually stacked in a particular way, so that the air can naturally circulate.

New stave selection

Some previously imperceptible defects can now appear. Hence, we need to meticulously inspect the wood again, and eliminate some extra staves.

During this wood seasoning, we eliminate any stave that presents any of these defects: knot, “picots”, “roulure”, vein, cross-grain, cracks, parallelism, under width…


 

4- Transformation into final staves

After its seasoning, the stave remains a raw plank that still needs to be transformed in order to become an assembly part.

Our skilled workmen follow a thousand years old method issued from the history of barrels.

Some extra wood is removed: these leftovers will be used for the fire during the toasting step.

Three shaping operations are going to transform the raw stave into a final one:

  1. Shortening: we cut in order to get the exact desired barrel size.
  2. Hallowing and backing:to facilitate the future bending, we hollow out the stave on its interior side, and bulge it on the exterior.
  3. Grooming: to hovel shape: we adjust the angles to make sure the staves will be watertight.

 

5- Assembling and shaping of the barrel

Each operation is done manually. Certain mechanical tools help us for tasks that require huge efforts, but for each of our barrels, thousands of hammer hits remain necessary.

Moreover, each barrel is a unique piece of art. As a Parisian journalist brilliantly wrote, you need to imagine “violin makers equipped with the boxer’s grasp”

Bringing the final staves together

At this step, the barrel is really taking its final shape. The staves are brought together thanks to a metal hoop. You need about thirty staves per piece, no matter if the barrel is a Burgundy or Bordeaux type.

The cooper alternates one large stave with a thinner one. When he slips in the last one, the pieces can already hold by themselves, but we add a few metal hoops in order to reinforce the structure.

Bending of the staves

Now comes the very first heating operation: the objective is to make the wood more malleable. We slowly raise the temperature, in order for the staves heart to attain 70 to 80 Celsius degrees. At the same time, we sprinkle water on the oak to soften it.

We then progressively squeeze the base of the barrel that will take its definitive shape: the bilge appears. The “bilge” is this typical swelling that wooden barrels have. This bloat is where the lees will fall: the winemaker can then remove them by racking, or put them back in motion in order to adjust the richness of his product (we call this “bâtonnage” in French”).


 

6- Toasting : aromatic cooking of the oak

The barrel is now almost done. This second heating of the wood does not aim to produce a certain shape, but certain aromas.

Traditionally, it’s during this delicate step that the cooper affixes his signature. The toasting actually carries a certain style and comes only to enhance all the choices made previously (wood terroir, type and quality).

The winemaker manages this crucial process with all his art, and by paying thorough attention to the precise wishes of the client.

Cooperage craft serving the wine

The fire is not used to burn but to cook. The oak leftovers are used and placed in a little metallic hearth called “chaufferette”. We pay very special attention to each barrel toasting : there are no fixed recipes or expected miracles. The toasting requires both precise art and work.

In the morning coolness of our workshop, little fires lighten up. Each barrel gets its own slate with its reference number, the time and state of the cooking. Very quickly, aromas invade the space. By plunging the nose in a freshly baked barrel, one could feel like being in a cake shop.

The type of toasting depends on the winemaker

At the Cavin Cooperage, our toastings last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, whether it’s a Classic (Classique) or Deep Expression (Expression Profonde) process. Each type of toasting comes in different intensities. The letters corresponding to the toastings are then laser engraved on the barrels themselves.

Classic toasting : light (L), medium (M), medium minus (M-), medium plus (M+) and strong (F). The Classic toasting lasts about 45 minutes : it suits well the Cavin Classic range.

Deep Expression toasting (Expression Profonde) : basic light (EP-), basic (EP), medium (EPM) and strong (EPF). The Deep Expression toasting is highly recommended for the Cavin Aphrodite barrels.

Very delicate, it brings minimalist aromatics. The wood only takes a very light color, slightly blond. The objective is to bring the wine to its blossoming without marking it. This barrel toasting follows a non-interventionist philosophy.

100% traditional toasting

Some coopers automatise and manage the whole toasting process through a computer. The fire is then powered with a machine that distributes wood pellets or even gas, according to a certain program. In this case, everything becomes standardized and industrial: the barrel toasting reduces itself to a mere choice on a catalogue. This is not our approach.

We stay very discreet when it comes to our barrel toasting, as it is one of the crucial points where differences appear, and we can “feel” the value of our work, during this particular process.

Generally speaking, we study this very specific process on a case-by-case basis. For us, this step belongs to craft art and this is why we do it “the old way”. Each winemaker wants to produce a particular wine on which his personal mark is affixed.

The barrel toasting thus depends on the one who is making the wine, as much as the grape variety or the region; and these specific needs can never be reduced to a series of numbers that impose a fixed cooking time and temperature. The perfect barrel can only be built through words and communication, vintage after vintage.

A famous cellar master summarized this truth the following way: “A medium toasting in a certain cooper differs from the others. It remains very human and as complex as the terroirs.” We can only agree to such a statement.

So please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have special needs and questions about barrel toasting.


 

7- Finishing and quality control of the barrel

Most of the barrel making is now done. We now seal the two extremities with the heads, that are composed of smaller staves.

Installing the final metal hoops

The temporary metal hoops are removed and replaced by the final ones. To make sure the barrel is watertight, the chime is sealed in a traditional way, with water and wheat. Then sanding occurs.

The logo or name of the client is then engraved thanks to a laser, along with a reference number, if the barrel comes from our Aphrodite limited editions range.

Sanding and laser engraving approach the very last steps: our barrel is now almost ready to be used.

Under pressure: watertightness control

Before being sent to the client, water is pumped into the barrel at high pressure, to make sure the structure is watertight. If a problem occurs, it can thus be addressed right away.

For more information, please see our page dedicated to use of barrels.


 
See our barrel resources section if you have more questions.