Esprit de Corps
The Seguin Moreau cooperage sits on the edge of Cognac, the largest facility in the region with a history dating back to 1838. Owing its existence to the cognac industry on its doorstep, it also crafts barrels now for wine and whisky producers
Article by Richard Goslan, courtesy of the July 2017 issue of the SMWS Unfiltered magazine, photography by Aline Aubert
There’s nothing quite like taking a tour that starts with stacks of oak trees and ends with the lids of casks being lasered to appreciate the depth of knowledge and the range of skills involved in masterminding that metamorphosis from piles of timber to pristine cask. At Seguin Moreau, we are able to take in every step in the fascinating process – and then sample a range of spirits that demonstrate some of the differences in the wood management we’ve witnessed.
The giant Seguin Moreau cooperage sits on the edge of Cognac, the largest facility in the region with a history dating back to 1838. It owes its existence to the cognac industry on its doorstep and is still now linked to Rémy Martin through the same major shareholders – the Heriard Dubreuil family – but Seguin Moreau also crafts barrels for wine producers, as well as the whisky industry.
Of course, it all starts with the trees, and as we stroll around the yard taking in the sight of immense oak trunks that have been freshly split, Seguin Moreau’s large containers manager Jean-Baptiste Comoy explains where the wood comes from, and how it’s prepared. “We source oak trees of between 150 and 200 years old from French, European, US and Caucasian forests, although French oak accounts for 80 per cent of our total,” he says. “The wood is stacked up here and kept in the open air in our yard, where it is watered at the beginning before it matures throughout the seasons to achieve its aromatic and phenolic potential. “We have discovered that the optimal period to season the oak is about two years. Only when it reaches the best humidity level and organoleptic quality is it turned into staves at our workshop.”
The French oak is either robur (pedunculate) or sessile (petrae). Robur has a coarser grain compared with sessile, which as Jean-Baptiste explains leads to a significant difference in maturation. The facility’s ability to create casks that are adapted to the varying expectations of different manufacturers comes down to a greater understanding of how different woods interact with the spirits. To gain that knowledge, the company partnered with the Faculty of Oenology of Bordeaux and that research and development into the interaction between the cask and the wine or spirit has led to new approaches. The company has even launched a different line of casks with its ICÔNE range, where the entire process is built on applying a mathematical model that correlates the chemical concentrations of the oak with the organoleptic characteristics produced at the end of the ageing process.
“Our research, for example, identified the non-volatile quercotriterpenoside (QTT) molecule, which has more influence than tannins,” says Jean-Baptiste. “The concentration of QTT is responsible for the sweet taste in your mouth, whereas the lignans contribute bitterness. Five years ago we didn’t know anything about this.
“Thanks to our research and development, we also now understand that the grain of the oak has more influence on the chemical components going into the cask than where the wood comes from. There is a high correlation between oak grain and the concentration of tannins, with less tannins in the fine or tight grain. We use coarse grain or wide grain for longer ageing, because it needs time to integrate and goes well with coarse eaux de vie. Fine grain lends itself to shorter ageing. That means our wood is selected primarily by its grain, rather than location.”
There’s a lot to absorb on this tour, not only in the science at work in the selection and treatment of the wood, but in the sheer physical effort on display when it comes to manipulating these staves into the casks that roll off the end of the production line, like wooden works of art. The coopers themselves train for three years before they are qualified to take their place in the facility, with a final test where they have to construct a complete barrel themselves. Now, around 120 coopers create up to 80,000 casks a year on this production line, as well as reconditioning used barrels and building the massive tanks of up to 1,200 hectolitres used by both cognac and wine producers.
Walking through the facility, we see how the staves pass through these various sets of hands as they are slotted into position before being heated and bent into the barrel’s shape. Firing is done over braziers fuelled with oak scraps, before the barrel is toasted to each customer’s requirements. Barrels go through testing to ensure they are watertight, and then a sample of water from each one goes to the laboratory for analysis.
This is where Seguin Moreau is able to identify any contamination with trichloroanisole (TCA), the natural compound that can impart a musty or “corked” aromas to wines. The analysis also reveals the concentration of different molecules that are extractable and have an influence on the liquid.
Our tour concludes in Seguin Moreau’s tasting room, where Jean-Baptiste demonstrates how the difference in molecules in the wood contribute the compounds that provide the variety of sensory experiences, manipulated by the level of toasting. These could be the whisky lactones that contribute coconut notes, furanic compounds contributing notes of caramel or toasted bread, or the guaiacol that gives us smoke. “Toasting of course has a big influence on the results, with a lot of aromatic compounds that appear,” says Jean-Baptiste. “But it’s complicated by the impact of the heat, because the more you toast, the higher the levels of guaiacol, but for furanic compounds there is a peak before the level starts to go down. The whisky lactone, meanwhile, is more sensitive to heat, so the more you toast the cask, the less it will contribute. It’s all about achieving the right balance based on the requirements.”
In the sample we try from Seguin Moreau’s ICÔNE Elegance cask, there is a signature sweetness, which comes from the QTT in the oak. A new make spirit from a French whisky distiller, meanwhile, is already developing notable whisky lactones after only four months in a fine grain cask. A much older spirit demonstrates the impact of extremely long ageing, with a decrease in the aggressiveness of the alcohol and the development of the oxidative aromas described as rancio, with notes of figs, nuts and prunes.
“Everything we’re working towards is to better understand every aspect of the wood to become more consistent in the results we get from our barrels,” says Jean-Baptiste. “We have to be humble, we don’t know all about wood – but through constant analysis and our research we can understand more and therefore control more and more of the perameters that influence the cask’s potential.”
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