September 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

How French Are French Barrels?

Cooperage group creates charter to define oak origins for wine barrels

by Alan Goldfarb

  • A trade organization of French cooperages has adopted a charter to define standards of origin for barrels marketed as French.
  • A barrel marketed as French oak must have wood sourced 100% in France, and at least 70% from the named regions.
  • Some French cooperages say they'll continue to emphasize grain, rather than forest of origin.
In an effort to ensure the origin of wood that is used to make oak barrels, a French cooperage trade association has submitted a charter to the government to create "a common rule and a coherent definition" of forest designations. The charter is designed to break old habits in the cooperage industry and set more clear standards for wood origins.

The charter sets a strict standard of 100% French-grown wood for any barrel labeled or marketed as French. It allows more leeway for barrels with more specific geographic regions. (They may contain as little as 70% wood from the named region.) The charter also seeks to curtail the once-popular Tronçais and Nevers designations.

According to Philippe Rapacz of the Seguin Moreau cooperage, who sits on the board of the Fédération Français de la Tonnellerie or (FFT, the Federation of French Coopers,), the "Forest Origin and Designation Charter" aims to prevent French cooperages from labeling their barrels with French forest designations when a portion of the wood used may have come from other locations.

The FFT ( claims 43 registered coopers as members, which represent about 95% of the French cooperage industry in terms of production volume. Members include such tonnelleries as Sylvain, Saury, Vicard, Seguin Moreau, Radoux, Taransaud Beaune and Mercurey.

The FFT is hoping to clarify or curtail entirely oak barrels that carry the designation of "Tronçais" or "Nevers." That is because, according to François Peltereau-Villeneuve, the president and CEO of Seguin Moreau Napa, "It's not specific enough…because there's no forest in Nevers. If someone says, 'These trees come from the center of France,' what does center of France mean? There are six departments (or counties) in the center of France. If those trees come from one of those counties and you can prove it, then it's (from the) center of France."

The FFT sent the charter to the D.G.C.C.R.F. (a government agency that oversees business fraud) and recommended "abandoning the notion of 'type' of geographic forest designation. At the same time, the charter calls for the cooperage industry to be "more specific" about geographic origins of trees. According to the FFT, the French government "will only check that each cooper indicates on its commercial documents/website/brochures that the forest origins are clearly defined. If a cooper refers to this charter, it means that he has the obligation to comply to it; if not, he will be subject to penalties by the government."

What will be 'charter' oak?
The FFT charter advises its members to use the following principles:

French Oak: "Oak harvested 100% within the French administrative and metropolitan borders";

Oak from a given French forest region: "Oak harvested 70% within the boundaries given to that region." This means that 70% of the oak used for a barrel must be harvested inside the cadastral (or the precise mapping of the borders for each private or public property belonging to a department or town) limits of that forest; and the remaining 30% may come from another French forest.

The proposed massif (or contiguous) forest regions and the French departments (counties) within them are:

Central France: Eure et Loire, Loiret, Cher, Loir et Cher, Indre, Indre et Loire, Allier, Yonne, Côte d'Or, Nièvre, Saône et Loire, Seine Saint-Denis, Val de Marne, Yvelines, Essonne, Seine et Marne, Orne, Sarthe, Mayenne and Maine et Loire.

Limousin: Corrèze, Haute-Vienne, Creuse, Vienne and Charente.

Eastern France: Aube, Ardennes, Marne, Meuse, Moselle, Meurthe et Moselle, Bas-Rhin, Haute-Marne, Haute-Rhin, Haute Saône, Doubs, Jura and Vosges.

Northern France: Somme, Aisne, Oise, Nord and Pas-de-Calais.

Bucking the trend
While the trend now among some cooperages is to promote the grain of their wood rather than the forest, due perhaps to the proliferation of fraud, barrel manufacturers will likely, upon request from customers who ask for specific forest or area designation, follow the charter.

According to Seguin Moreau's Rapacz, the charter is "for the industry to self-regulate, but it has been dispatched to the government authorities and will be published in the main magazines and newspapers dedicated to the wine and wood industries."

While Rapacz wrote in an e-mail to Wines & Vines that all 43 members of FFT signed off on the charter, some coopers--including his own Seguin Moreau--will continue to promote the grain of their wood instead of forest origin.

A spokesperson for another cooper, Saury USA (the parent company in France is a member of FFT), was steadfast on his organization's continuing stance of the promotion of grain versus forest origin.

"From our perspective, when you go down that road to being very specific as to your wood origin, for example Bercé, what other consistencies can they (the FFT charter) provide?" asked Bayard Fox, general manager for Saury USA. "All they're (FFT) proposing is to make an appellation designation (which) is not a guarantee of quality. To provide grain and appellation would be more consistent."

To be clear, Seguin Moreau's Rapacz reiterated that if a barrel client requests forest origin or grain designation, the charter provides for either eventuality.

Saury's Fox believes the charter is only a first move toward preventing fraud, but that the proposed origin designations don't go far enough. "I think that it's a start for the general parameters, but I would add our stance would be to stick with a tight grain stamp.

"But with those four (aforementioned forest) categories, there's no romance to it. It (forest designation) has been a misguided effort from the beginning because it's deceitful. With these four categories, why bother? From the standpoint of consistency and quality, it's misinformed. We're still going to do what we've always been doing--grain trumps appellation," he continued.

"It's fine if people want to utilize these general or specific regions, but if you want to make quality (barrels) with quality woods, why not specify tight grain?"

Office National des Forêt (ONF), an organization that manages France's forests, has for years had designations regarding the origin of wood, which leads some to question the need for another government agency weighing in on the matter.

A matter of terroir
"What are these controls going to be?" asked Mel Knox, a San Francisco barrel broker who represents French coopers Taransaud and François Freres. "It strikes me that the ONF would have the best definition." He further pointed out, geography to some is "a sales point, but my feeling is that the French coopers and most winemakers don't pay the slightest bit of attention to what it says (on barrels). They don't buy Allier, they buy (the manufacturer) of barrels.

Knox agreed that if origin is going to be an issue, "Geography, for a lot of these people, goes to the whole notion of terroir. The most important thing in wine is terroir, and if you believe that, the most important thing in oak is terroir. It's the difference between selling wine and making wine. Grain types are manifestations of trees and are more important than points of origin, but when you begin to sell things…"

Seguin Moreau's Rapacz said in an e-mail, "There were at least about 20 cooperages that have been investigated in the past six to eight months by the D.G.C.C.R.F." He added, however, that these were routine investigations, since the agency is charged with ensuring that "companies manufacturing products or components or raw materials linked to the food industry (or in contact with food) are following all safety rules/norms/certifications in accordance to the French law."

The FFT is anxious to get further government sanction for wood designation and origin--one reason why Seguin Moreau, as well as others in the last few years, are self-regulating by employing the services of other non-governmental regulatory agencies.

By so doing, Seguin Moreau's Peltereau-Villeneuve pointed out, regulation will allow cooperages "to be specific, so you know exactly what you're talking about (when one sells barrels) and what you're purchasing."

He suggests that the fraud department may further be getting involved now because, "What seems to have happened, is that the D.G.C.C.R.F. apparently found out some coopers were selling some European wood as French wood. We suspect that this is what happened, but we don't know for sure, because it's not public.

"(But) we are very much in favor of making sure when a cooper says he's selling French oak, it is indeed French oak. We want to be on a fair playing field.…People are trying to get better and improve in an effort to be more transparent about what people are buying. But there are always some players who might not be as concerned with being honest with their customers."

As to the general economic state of the French tonnellerie business, in a press release issued by the FFT, the cooperage market suffered a "slight downturn" of 0.8% revenue in 2008 compared to the previous year, while the volume of barrels was down by 5% over the same period.

According to the statement, France's barrel exports were down 0.2% in revenues and off by 5% on volume from 2007 to '08.

Alan Goldfarb has contributed numerous articles to Wines & Vines, and has become something of a specialist on oak in all its tasty forms. To comment on this article, e-mail





Alain Fouquet French Cooperage Inc.

(707) 265-0996

Artisan Barrels

(510) 339-0170

Barrel Builders Inc.

(707) 942-4291

The Barrel Mill

(800) 201-7125

Barrels Unlimited Inc.

(562) 438-9901

The Boswell Co.

(415) 457-3955

T.W. Boswell

(707) 255-5900

Brick Packaging LLC

(231) 947-4950

Canton Cooperage Co.

(707) 836-9742

Carolina Wine Supply

(336) 677-6831

Cooperages 1912

(707) 255-5900

Demptos Napa Cooperage

(707) 257-2628

Gino Pinto Inc.

(609) 561-8199

IDL Process Solutions Inc.

(604) 538-2713

Kelvin Cooperage

(502) 366-5757

G.W. Kent Inc.

(800) 333-4288

Mel Knox Barrel Broker

(415) 751-6306

Louis Latour Inc.

(415) 479-4616

M & M Wine Grape Co.

(877) 812-1137

Mistral Barrels Inc.

(707) 996-5600

Nadalie USA

(707) 942-9301

Oak Tradition

(707) 318-0002

Oceans of Wine Supply Inc.

(732) 240-4993

Pickering Winery Supply

(415) 474-1588

Premier Wine Cask

(800) 227-5625

ReCoop Inc.

(707) 829-7103

Rich Xiberta USA Inc.

(707) 795-1800

Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage Inc.

(707) 252-3408

StaVin Inc.

(415) 331-7849

Tonelerìa Quercus

(707) 746-5704

Tonnellerie Bel Air

(707) 987-8905

Tonnellerie Berger & Fils

(707) 644-2822

Tonnellerie Boutes

(510) 799-1518

Tonnellerie de Jarnac USA

(707) 332-4524

Tonnellerie Garonnaise

(510) 799-1518

Tonnellerie Leroi

(707) 508-5006

Tonnellerie Mercier

(707) 967-9645

Tonnellerie Ô

(707) 752-6350

Tonnellerie Quintessence

(707) 935-3452

Tonnellerie Radoux USA

(707) 284-2888

Tonnellerie Remond

(707) 935-2176


Tonnellerie Saury

(707) 944-1330

Tonnellerie Sirugue

(310) 452-8147

Tonnellerie Sylvain

(707) 259-5344

Trust International Corp.

(561) 540-4043

United Barrels

(707) 258-0795

VinOak USA

(707) 746-5704

World Cooperage

(707) 255-5900


Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.