In October 2015, Mike Church and I visited Bordeaux in an attempt to broaden our knowledge and, in particular, to visit one of our most favoured Cooperages, Mercier.We were met by Yann Bordier, their Marketing Director, who took two days out of his busy schedule to personally supervise our visit to their Saw Mill, and then the Tonelerie. We had previously visited a cooperage, but what struck me on this occasion was the fact that almost all the processes are executed diligently by hand and, although there is some aid from mechanisation, just about all of the work is performed by highly skilled Coopers.
Their skill is passed down from generation to generation wherein these young men have to complete a rigorous apprenticeship before they are allowed near the real thing. The 200-year old oak tree trunks are bought from state auctions and cured before being cut into manageable blocks, roughly the height of a barrel.
A very skilled Cooper then splits these blocks by means of a mechanised axe that is meticulously dropped onto the block of wood. This process is repeated until the blocks are small enough to pass through the sawmill to roughly the size of a stave. The staves are then packed onto pallets and stored in the open to cure for approximately two years, in an attempt to remove the harshest of tannins, and only then are they returned to the sawmill to be refined and shaped.
The Coopers then action the sorting, assembling and toasting. Branding is applied and the barrels are now ready for shipping all the way to Stellenbosch, where we continue the nurturing process by filling them with our finest.
Our Directors Reserve is matured in these 100% New French Oak barrels. They are subsequently used twice more for maturing our Classique. The tannins and bouquets derived from these amazingly well-crafted barrels add to the complexity of our wines and transition smoothly onto the palate; chocolate, mocha and cigar box notes are all derived from the wood and the medium-toasting that the barrels undergo.
These barrels are, in fact, priceless and we are proud to be the beneficiaries of prudent French Authorities who protect these forests, and ensure a steady supply of oak that serves the entire wine producing community.