300 barrels in 4 months

Every year, it takes the House’s cooper (the last resident cooper in the Champagne region, and winner of the Best Craftsman in France award) about four months to repair more than 300 barrels, representing 10% of the 3,000 oak barrels owned by Bollinger. This is unusual in the champagne world, as Bollinger is one of the last Houses to vinify its fine wines in barrels. They all come from Burgundy, where they have already been used in a previous life, for to let the tannins of new wood enter the precious liquid during vinification is not an option. The average age of Bollinger barrels is forty years, but some of them have reached a hundred! They survive down the decades thanks to the careful attention of the cooper, whospends the months of spring and early summer freshening them up and repairing them.

Once they have been emptied, all the barrels are copiously washed in clear water to remove deposits and rinsed, drained and dried before being sterilised with sulphur steam. They are then hermetically sealed to prevent any chance of mould settling in the pores of the wood, which would seriously damage the next harvest’s wine. But for some of them, maintenance is not sufficient; they must be repaired. The stave in which the plug hole has been pierced will weaken over time and must be replaced as must any of the smaller staves that are split, damaged or deteriorated with acidity. The steel or chestnut hoops must be restored. Over the years, every single piece of the barrel will be changed, one after the other, ad infinitum. 

In early July, it is all over: 3,000 empty barrels are lined up in the cellar of which are over a hundred years old, hang on the wall. A distinctive smell of sulphur, putty, heat-branded wood and metal-work, combined with the fragrance of fermented fruit and oak, lingers in the air. Here too, all is quiet. Until next year.

30
July
2014