Frédéric Rousseau at Tonnellerie Rousseau

ooperage is a very old profession. For centuries oak barrels have been used for aging wine and very little has changed when it comes to the actual making of the barrels. Instead the character of the oak has become of great importance and the coopers are working closely with the winemakers.

– We are not making the wine, but we are part of the process, says Frédéric Rousseau at Tonnellerie Rousseau, a cooperage in Couchey at the top of the Côte de Nuits.

Tonnellerie Rousseau, Burgundy.The story of Tonnellerie Rousseau goes back to 1954 when Frédéric Rousseau's grandfather, Julien Rousseau, founded the company. At the time the company was specialising in large format barrels.

– When my father joined my grandfather in the 1970's they started to make some 228 litre barrels, the Burgundian barrel size. We still have these two activities today. We have two production sites. One here in Couchey, just by Marsannay-la-Côte, where we make small barrels, from 225 litres up to 600 litres. In Fixin (2 km south of Couchey) we have another factory, where we make big barrels, from 1000 litres up to 10000 litres.

In the mid-1990's they decided to go for the international market. Since then they have expanded into the majority of the major wine regions of the world – the US, Australia, New Zeeland, South Africa, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. The annual production is 11 000 barrels and 150–200 oak tanks/large casks a year.

Tonnellerie Rousseau, Burgundy.Today these countries account for a large part of the sales. 75 percent of the production is being sold outside France. This means that it is of less importance nowadays to be located in a wine region.

– That's right, says Frédéric Rousseau. That's why you find cooperages all over France today; sometimes they are very far from the wine regions.

Through his work and his international contacts Frédéric Rousseau is able to see trends in the use of oak in wine, both international trends and national trends.

 – There's a big difference even if you compare the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits with the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. In the Mâconnais and the Côte Chalonnaise they have very delicate fruit. They need delicate oak barrels to follow the fruit. We can't give them some heavy-toast barrels.

Tonnellerie Rousseau, Burgundy.– It's the same for Champagne, where some people have returned to using oak, mainly large format barrels. In a large barrel there is less contact between wine and wood than in a regular small barrel. It gives a low oak impact, something sweet and gentle. In Champagne they don't want you to be able to smell any oak in the wine.

A century ago an oak barrel was simply an oak barrel. Since then many factors have become important – the origin of the oak, the toasting, etc. The coopers work closely with the winemakers. Two or three times a year they visit to see how the maturation process in the barrels is coming along.

– It is with oak as it is with wine, explains Frédéric Rousseau. If you plant chardonnay you get different soil influences depending on if you are doing it in Marsannay-la-Côte, in Meursault or in Mâcon. For oak the influence is different in different forests. With oak from central France you will get more vanilla and creaminess in the wine. The oak from eastern France gives more fresh wood flavours, more texture.

Tonnellerie Rousseau, Burgundy.– We are now talking more about the oak profile than the origin of the oak. We are working with different blends. We can offer a barrel to add structure to a wine or we can offer a barrel to add length or fruit.

Frédéric Rousseau feels that the general trend today is a move towards wines that are accessible young. Few people have the proper facilities to store wine for longer periods of time.

– When people buy wine they want to be able to drink it soon, he says. Not even I have a cellar to store wine in. I like young wines for their acidity and the fruit.

– People are looking for wines that are easier to understand. To achieve this you can use low oak-impact barrels to underline the fruit and to destroy as much as possible of the vanilla and fresh wood flavours. Many are tired of the big oak character of wines.

Talking to a man who lives and breathes oak barrels one can't help wondering whether he can enjoy a wine or if he is analysing everything he drinks.

– It's a professional deformation, he says with a smile. When I'm with customers or at a professional tasting we have to discuss the impact and integration of oak. But when I'm at a restaurant with my wife or some friends I just want to enjoy a nice bottle of wine with a good meal. The wine is pleasure; it's part of the party, part of the friendship. Sometimes you don't analyse, you just say Santé! and have a glass.

© 2008 Ola Bergman