A recent missive from the “Seigneurs de Cahors” helped to unravel some of the varying terms used for oak barrels in France.
The “Seigneurs” or “lords” is a self-selected group of some of the best Cahors producers – but whilst I will agree that they are amongst the best, there are other producers outside the hallowed group who produce great wines.
The Seigneurs of Cahors include Chateau de Mercuès, Chateau Haut-Serre, Chateau Leret-Monpezat, Chateau les Bouysses, Chateau de Caix, Chateau de Chambert, Chateau du Cedre, Prieuré de Cénac and Chateau Triguedina.
However, back to barrels and barriques. As it is France, there is inevitably quite a lot of regional variation in names and sizes. The most common is the Bordeaux barrique (as pictured) used for ageing (and sometimes) fermenting wines especially to impart the softening and oaky flavours that contact with oak (especially new oak) can bring to a wine. In Bordeaux this is usually a barrique of 225 litres. However, in Burgundy a 220 litre barrel is known as a “pièce”, although sometimes this is 228 litres in the Côte d’Or. You will also find a demi-pièce which holds half of the equivalent quantity.
On a larger scale come the pipe (400 litres), the tonne(or tonneau) at 1000 litres and ultimately the foudre which can be over 11,500 litres. These larger containers tend to be more for storage, as the larger the barrel gets the less contact the wine has with the wood. The larger foudre tends to be quite ancient and will impart no real “woodiness” or “oakiness” to the wine.
The smaller the barrel and the newer the oak, the more intense the impact on the wine will be. Many winemakers will use a proportion of new oak barrels with some that have been used for one or two harvests to get just the right amount of “oak” character in the wine.
Also the French being French, they will usually choose French oak from the massive forests of the Allier or the Troncais for example. American oak is sometimes used, but tends to have a more powerful oaky flavour than the more subtle French oak. There is a whole industry and mythology around the whole process of oak cultivation (sylviculture). cutting and drying the staves, toasting and making the barrels (tonnellerie). There is now cheaper oak available from Eastern Europe to complicate matters, and seeing as how a quality oak barrel from a good supplier can cost €700 or more, then price has to be a serious consideration for the winemaker.