Visitors to Maison Ferrand in France’s Cognac region are usually astonished to come face-to-face with a polished wooden egg, easily big enough to hold a full-sized adult. Now, if you’re old enough to recall the 1970s sitcom staple Mork & Mindy, you know that Mork (Robin Williams) arrived on earth nestled within a giant white egg. However, Ferrand’s wooden egg holds something very different, and it’s not alone. A few kilometers up the road, another egg greets visitor in the lobby of Tonnellerie Taransaud, one of the many cooperages – tonnelleries –operating in the region.
As company calling cards go, Taransaud’s two-thousand-liter wooden egg, dubbed The Ovum, certainly grabs your attention. Making one requires the exact, perfect slice from three hundred trees to craft a single Ovum. Why go to such lengths for a cask? Without any angled corners, it allows convection circulation to slowly but constantly move the liquid within.
Originally designed for use in aging wine, one Ovum has found a home at nearby Maison Ferrand, where it integrates the cask aged gins that make up Citadelle Reserve gin. While certainly a marquee product for the cooperage, it’s only one of many fascinating things within Taransaud’s Merpins facility, just a few kilometers southwest of the village of Cognac.
It’s a crisp October day for our visit to Taransaud. Accompanying us is Maison Ferrand’s technical director, Benjamin Galais. Besides the Ovum, Ferrand purchases many casks to age its Cognac, and Taransaud is one of their partner suppliers. We’re greeted by Jacquelin de Pracomtal, Key Account Manager at Taransaud, who will be showing us around today. Tall, thin, and in his early thirties, Jacquelin’s friendly demeanor and pride in Taransaud give no obvious clues that his father, Henri, was once chairman of Hennessey, the world’s largest Cognac producer. In 1997, Henri stepped down from his chair post and purchased the tonnellerie from LMVH, the parent company of Hennessy.
Our Taransaud odyssey naturally starts in the seasoning yard, where countless pallets holding hundreds of wooden staves reside in neat rows, stretching off into the distance. Each stave is about a meter in length, meaning it will likely be used for a cask in the 225 to 600 liter range. The roughhewn staves are tightly packed together for shipping. A white tag on each cube of staves indicates the type of wood, the forest they originated from, and other essential details.
Taransaud manages numerous wood varieties in order to make casks specialized to the different demands of wine and spirits. For instance, Cognac can only be aged in French oak from the forests of the Limousin or Tronçais regions.
While the purpose of our visit is primarily to learn about casks intended for Cognac, it’s worth noting that the wine industry is the dominant target for Taransaud’s business. And not just the French or even EU wine producers. Taransaud’s biggest market is California–big enough that the company set up a subsidiary in San Francisco, Taransaud North America, to handle import logistics for all the incoming casks.
Back in France, the newly arrived staves are soon spread out in a less space efficient yet critical configuration. Freshly cut wood has far too many tannins and too much water content to be used in a cask. The best way to remedy this is to let Mother Nature work her magic for several years. The staves are stacked, each layer perpendicular to the prior and plenty of space between each, and left uncovered outside. Over many months, the rain, wind, and sun slowly reduce the moisture content and leach out most of the sharp tannins. From time to time, the stacks are moved around, and toward the end of their seasoning, the staves are moved under cover to shield them from rain.
Management of the seasoning yard is one of the hallmarks of a tonnellerie, Jacquelin tells us. Typically, a stave spends two years seasoning at some tonnelleries, but here 30 to 36 months is more typical. You might be wondering if all that exposure to the elements causes fungus growth, and turns the wood darker. It does in fact–and that’s a good thing, according to Jacquelin.
Taransaud’s facility encompasses several extremely large structures where different aspects of production occurs. We first visit the building where the staves from the yard are turned into finished casks. Donning steel toed half-clogs that wrap around the front of our shoes, Jacquelin begins to walk us through the many stages of cask production.
Unlike the old days of a single cooper crafting one cask a time, modern cooperages are streamlined assembly lines, with many highly specialized stations. One set of coopers deals entirely with inspecting the staves as they come in from the seasoning yard, rejecting those that would cause problems if used in a cask. Another group of coopers selects and arranges the staves that will be pinned together and cut into a perfect circle to create cask heads. Meanwhile, more coopers select and arrange dozens of staves inside circular metal hoops to create the main cask body.
The highlight of most cooperage visits is the toasting or charring of the casks. Jutting up from the floor are metal burners from which a healthy flame emanates. Coopers roll the cask into place so that it completely surrounds the flame, and wait for the specified amount of time for the desired char level. Unfortunately, this was one of the areas where I wasn’t allowed to take photographs, but you can get a sense of what it looks like in the photos from the aforementioned Jerez cooperage story. Or if you have two minutes, check out this fascinating video made by Taransaud.
Compared to the Spanish cooperage we visited in Jerez, Taransaud is chock-full of high tech advancements in the cask making arts: Prior to final selection, a device taps each stave and analyzes the vibration patterns to spot flaws. Workers are unencumbered by dust masks, as all cutting and sanding is done within enclosures kept free of sawdust by vacuum systems.
But wait! There’s even fancier tech at play here. Once a cask’s walls are in place, a bar code is affixed that remains with it. As casks move through the pipeline–for example, at the charring station–scanners and computers process the barcode data, then flash specific instructions for the cooper on a nearby video screen. This eliminates many mistakes that might normally occur with small cask runs where the cooper isn’t doing the same thing for each cask, over and over repeatedly.
And finally, lasers! Not only are lasers used in place of pencils during the initial construction, any wording or imagery on the final casks is done with a high power laser rather than ye olde branding iron.
Before departing the building, we stop at a special area dedicated to making the company’s high-end T5 casks. Crafted from extremely tight grained Troncais staves seasoned for five years, the entire cask is made from start to finish by a single cooper, using only hand tools. To make T5 casks, a cooper must have undergone many years of training and been award the title of Meilleur Ouvier de France (“Best craftsman of France”).
To The Tanks!
While casks get most of the romance and glory associated with wine and spirits making, there’s plenty of need for enormous vessels for fermentation, blending, and aging–and aren’t hulking stainless steel vats. Taransaud understandably has this angle covered too.
Walking toward the building where they construct these tanks, we pass another cluster of staves undergoing seasoning. However, these are significantly longer, perhaps three meters in length. These will be used for the enormous tanks, ranging in size up to 55,000 liters, or about 14,500 U.S. gallons.
Once inside, what we see resembles the cask making that goes on in the prior building, but on a vastly larger scale. The circular tank-ends here are several meters across and would work well as a round table for King Arthur and his knights. The giant metal hoops that hold these tanks together resemble huge rubber bands, flopping around lopsidedly until they surround the tank walls. Moving them around is not an easy task!
Some tanks are tall enough that inspecting and fixing things on upper portions would be cumbersome with a ladder. Thus, a rappelling-style ceiling hoist is in place to lift a worker in a harness, suspending them in midair where they need to work.
Walking back to the main office, I contemplate all we’ve seen. It really is a marriage of centuries old artisanal craftsmanship thoughtfully augmented with technology. The high tech doesn’t diminish the need for specialized and highly skilled workers. Nothing they do requires the high tech enhancements. Rather, it reduces the chance for expensive errors and makes for a safer and more comfortable working environment. It’s easy to see how this forward looking respect for the cask-making arts leads to innovations like the Ovum.
While what goes on in the distillery and the aging warehouse are fascinating parts of the spirit making process, it’s easy to overlook the highly intriguing story of how casks come to be. It’s far more complex than you might imagine, and if you’re ever in a position to visit a cooperage, you absolutely should do it. I’d like to extend my extreme gratitude to both Benjamin Galais for setting up the visit for us, as well as Jacquelin de Pracomtal for being such a knowledgeable and hospitable host.