Long before green was good, France had tonneliers, the barrelmakers who safeguarded the world’s best oak forests to supply the world’s best winemakers. The Nadalié family opened its tonnellerie in Montpellier in 1902, and in the 1930s moved to Médoc, near the great Bordeaux domains where aging fine wines requires the know-how of highly skilled coopers. Today the fifth generation, led by Stéphane Nadalié, carries on the tradition. Their barrels are custom-made, and they work closely with wineries to develop specific aromas. (They now also have tonnelleries in the US, Australia and Chile.) Wine barrels come in all shapes and sizes, depending on grape varieties, wine color, the length of time the wine will age in the barrel and the region—Burgundy barrels are long and lean, Bordeaux barrels short and stout. French barrels are considered the world’s best, because of the tightly grained white oak wood and the centuries-old mastery of cooperage skills. The process begins deep in the forest, where the family fells trees in the fading light of a waning moon, when sap is at its lowest. The logs are left in the forest to season, crucial for ensuring good aromas. They are then split into staves—the Nadaliés are among the few who continue the traditional splitting by hand. The staves are left to the elements for two years, to shed harsh tannins. Then they are shaped, planed, joined and assembled into the upright “rose” of staves. Finally barrels are treated with water and fire, with toasting a key stage.

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Originally published in the December 2010 issue of France Today