Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How a Barrel is Made: Visit of the Cooperage Berger & Fils in Vertheuil – Bordeaux Tour by ombiasy WineTours (2015), France

Picture: At Cooperage Berger & Fils in Vertheuil

One very special visit during Bordeaux by ombiasy WineTours (2015), was the one at Cooperage Berger et Fils. Until very recently and for a long time, the company was a family-company, run and owned by Rene Berger and his wife Valérie Berger. On the last tour, Valérie was our charming guide. Cooperage Berger & Fils in Vertheuil was recently acquired by the TFF Group.

TFF Group

TFF Group, formerly Tonnellerie Francois Freres SA, is a France-based company that manufactures and distributes oak barrels. The Company has four core businesses: stave milling, cooperage, cask manufacturing and oak wine-aging products. The Company has operating units in France, the United States, Spain, Hungary, South Africa, China, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.

Cooperage Berger and Fils

Rene Berger: My passion was born from that of my father and grandfather. I am the proud descendant of a family of coopers, based in the Médoc, a truly exceptional land, since the beginning of the last century. From a very young age, these two men breathed into me the love of manual work and craftsmanship. They raised me in the pure artisanal tradition of master coopers, passing down their ancestral savoir-faire. It was therefore a natural conclusion that I should become a cooper in my turn.

Picture: Cooperage Berger & Fils in Vertheuil

When my father passed away in 1991, my first aim was to preserve and perpetuate his work, transmitting the craftsman’s skills to my own children. My mother’s full support was very important to me then, as it is now. It was also important to me to fight against an increasing standardization of production within the profession.

Running a family-based artisanal company does not, however, exclude innovation. I am very conscious of the new quality control requirements in an increasingly technical market. I use the latest technology allowing me to offer you the guarantee of high quality barrels, simply because: YOUR WINE DESERVES THE BEST.

Making a Barrel

Valérie Berger took us through the whole process of producing a wine barrel. A wine barrel is made up of staves which have been shaped into a bulging cylinder, and flat heads or ends. The staves are held in place by metal hoops. Six to eight hoops encircle the barrel spaced along the length. It takes approximately eight man hours to produce a single wine barrel.

Selection of the Oak

Valérie Berger: We choose the wood for our barrels with the help of well-known professionals, selecting slow-growing French Haute Futaie oak trees which become fine grain timber.

French oak is considered to be the most desirable wood for making wine barrels. Most French Oak comes from one or more of the forests planted in the days of Napoleon for ship building. Five of those forests are primarily used for wine barrel making: Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges forests. American Oak is considered to have too much influence on the content of the barrels. But usage is on the rise as the larger influence is sometimes desired and as American barrels are substantially less expensive than the French barrels. Hungarian Oak is also being used for barrel making.

Pictures: Natural Seasoning for 36 Months

The Stavemaker’s Work

Valérie Berger: To achieve the best blends, we acquire stave wood coming from different forests in the centre of France. For the same reason, we work in collaboration with different stave makers in the various areas ensuring a diversification in our supplies. Since 2003 we have developed a partnership with one of them who now prepares staves exclusively for the Tonnellerie Berger.

The selection of the stave wood is extremely important because it essentially determines the quality of the finished product. Wood is selected based on many criteria, including tree shape and growing conditions. These factors determine the textural variety of wood fibers, the fineness of grain and tannin content. Tight grain and fine tannin content are found only in the best wood.

Coding the Wood

Valérie Berger: Each pallet is coded by computer on arrival at our cooperage in Vertheuil, thus allowing the traceability of the barrel. The staves are then carefully stacked in the timber yard.

Natural Seasoning for 36 Months

Valérie Berger: Following the coding the staves are washed and then dried in the open air for at least 3 years in our 16,000 M2 timber yard. The wood will free itself of its harsh tannins and will gain the maturity and complexity necessary for the making of a great barrel.

Preparation of the Wood

Valérie Berger: Pallets of staves will be selected according to their origin, and assembled to create a personalized blend corresponding to the needs and wishes of each customer.


Valérie Berger: Once selected, the staves are prepared and then assembled on a pattern table where the cooper “raises the barrel”, forming a daisy shape. The wood fibres are softened by pre-heating. Then comes the hooping that, thanks to the effects of fire and water, transforms the daisy into a barrel.

Pictures: Assembling


Valérie Berger: The crucial stage of our art. Only the complete mastery of wood and fire makes the difference between a simple container and an exceptional barrel ready to age the wine. The “bousinage”, adapted to respect the particularities requested by each client, exults and nuances the aromas expressed by the wood. The hand-crafted nature of our cooperage enables us to create a tailor-made barrel for each and every one of our customers.

Pictures: Toasting

Hand-fitting, Marking and Scalding

Valérie Berger: The barrel heads are then individually fitted and each barrel is stamped to ensure traceability. A code records the origin and blend of the wood. An impermeability test is carried out by scalding. 10 litres of water heated to 70° C is pumped at high pressure into the barrel which is moved around so that the water is in contact with the whole surface of the inside of the barrel. This process allows us to check for possible leaks but also to collect test water to be analysed for each finished barrel in the aim of receiving the “Excell Inspection” certificate.

Pictures: Finishing


Valérie Berger: At this stage we take great care of the aesthetic appearance of our barrel. They are thus sandpapered or hand-scraped for customers who prefer the “guistrage” finish. And the final galvanized steel hoops replace the assembly hoops. And last of all, according to the type of barrel, pine bars held in place by chestnut pegs are set on the heads for the Château Ferré, and four chestnut hoops, bound with a type of wicker are installed for the Bordelaise Traditionnelle. This last step is carried out only by very experienced craftsmen. It is a true heritage of ancestral expertise that can only be mastered after years of practice.

Picture: Finished

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