The making process of a oak cask requires many steps. Expertise, know-how and meticulousness are essential. Jean-Philippe Bergier, cellar master of the Maison, is very involved in the choice of the wood which reveals Bache-Gabrielsen cognacs.
Step n°1 : selecting the trees
The very first stage of the making process of a cask is the selection of the wood and the trees. The NFOF, National Forestry Office of France, is in charge of the management of the French public forests, the choice of the trees and their annual sales. They will determine how many and which trees are going to be commercialized every year, and especially the ones that will be converted into oak casks.
This stage is primordial and requires a lot of thinking as the quality of the chosen wood will have an influence on the cask, its aromas, and thus, the final quality of the cognac. It is worth noting that this step, the purchasing, takes place from the mid-autumn to the beginning of spring, as the summer is dedicated to the drying of the whole tree.
Step n°2 : the auction sale
Once the selection and the valuation of the trees are done, the NFOF organizes an auction sale during which every wood purchaser can put an offer on the batch of trees that he is interested in. If he gets it, it is because he negotiated well, which is part of his know-how.
Step n°3 : the wood purchaser’s choice
The wood purchasers are real experts. They know the wood down to the very last detail. They are able to determine the strengths and weaknesses, the qualities and faults of the wood only by observing it. Their final objective is to make sure they select the perfect wood for their clients.
Maison Bache-Gabrielsen regularly cooperates with a wood purchaser. During the selection of the trees for the Maison, he has two options: the sessile oak which presents a « thin grain » thanks to its high trunk and sparse foliage, or the peduncle oak which presents a « thick grain » thanks to its garnished foliage. The sessile oak is chosen for delicate and subtle cognacs, with floral and spicy notes. In contrast, the peduncle oak is chosen for cognacs with more tannic and wooden hints.
Jean-Philippe Bergier, cellar master, has already been to the forest several times with the wood purchaser of the Maison. He has been able to observe the selection of the perfect wood, intended for the cognac casks of the Maison. Without any imperfections, those casks enable an optimum ageing of Bache-Gabrielsen cognacs. As an admirer of the wood purchaser’s know-how and expertise, Jean-Philippe talks about « the art of looking at trees and their fibers. »
Step n°4 : the cutting of the tree
Once the oak has been selected by the wood purchaser, it is cut by a lumberjack. This stage is carefully done as it is very important that no other tree is impacted when the trunk falls.
Step n°5 : the drying of the tree
Once cut, it is time for the whole trunk, also called « agrume » to dry. This stage lasts several weeks, mainly during the summer when the weather is hot and dry. The objective being to eliminate all the humidity and potential mold in the wood.
Step n°6 : from tree trunk to staves
After several weeks of drying, the tree trunk is ready to be cut. But, contrary to other wooden objects (parquet, furniture…) which are sawed, the oak cask requires the wood to be split. Indeed, it is essential that the fibers of the wood, and thus the sap canals, are punctiliously followed. It insures the perfect watertightness of the cognac casks.
That is when the know-how of the stave makers is put in the spotlight. They are in charge of splitting the wood into staves. Staves are oak pieces that have been split into thin planks.
Step n°7 : the ageing of the staves
Once the staves have been made, it’s their turn to rest and age.
The staves designed for Maison Bache-Gabrielsen age on our site in Louzac (next to the cellars). The ageing lasts minimum 2 years, between 24 and 36 months. This stage is essential as it enables to clean and wash the wood, as well as remove the bitterness of the wood’s tannins. It refines and perfects the wood’s benefits on the cognac.
Step n°8 : the cask creation
Last but not least, the final stage in the cooperage!
The staves are shortened, then passed through planers that give them their lightly curved form. Their role: to bend the outside part of the stave and hollow out the inside part to turn them into those famous wooden curved boards that make up the oak casks. Once the staves have been shaped, they are then assembled, heated, and joined together.
The heating has an essential role in the purpose of the cask and the aromas that it offers. The more the staves are heated, the more the aromas are distinct, with caramel and toasted bread notes. On the contrary, the less they are heated, the more it favors round aromas, with hints of vanilla.
To make a successful oak cask, there are two essential elements. The first one is to have the best raw material possible. It must be an optimum quality wood and must be exploited in the best way possible. The second one is the heating of the staves which must be very precise and must meet the strategic choices of the Maison de Cognac.
Those two main lines will determine the final quality of the cask, and so, of the cognac.
Aurélia, communication and marketing apprentice
PRIVATE COGNAC CASK