Limousin Oak Barrels
What Is So Interesting About Limousin Oak Barrels?
Limousin is not a wine producing area, it isn't famous for its brandy, nor does it make whisky, but Limousin oak is an essential part of the fine wine and spirits industries all over the world.
This beautiful, but hidden part of central France is a landscape of meadows and oak and sweet chestnut forests. Sparsely populated and rich in wildlife, visiting Limousin is like stepping back fifty years into a golden, agrarien past.
Little-known though Limousin is, it's world famous for three things: its top quality Limousin beef cattle, its fine and durable Limoges porcelain and its oak barrels (or oak casks).
The cognac and brandy producers of Cognac in France use Limousin oak to make their barrels. So do the whisky makers of Scotland and wine-makers.
Just why is oak from Limousin so highly prized?
Why Limousin Oak?
There are several oak producing regions around the world, that are used for barrel production. The French are Argonne, Vosges, Nevers, TronÃ§ais, Allier, Bourgogne, Armagnac (Landes) and Limousin. I live in Limousin.
Oak used in winemaking is typically produced from trees of three different species: American White Oak, (or Quercus alba), Quercus sessilis and Quercus pedunculata.
The forests of Limousin rejoice in the Quercus pedunculata. The wonderful climate, warm but with plenty of rainfall, the soil and rocky growing conditions give Limousin oak a very coarse grain which is not great for winemaking but is ideal to age Cognac and Bourbon.
Image: Walks through oak woods near Videix
Where is Limousin? - In South West France
How Oak Barrels Are Made? - And who makes barrels or casks these days?
Barrels are traditionally made by coopers. Barrels are wooden staves bound together with metal hoops, but barrels are only one type of the containers made by coopers; other types go under the names of casks, (the generic word for everything a cooper makes), barrels, buckets, tubs, hogsheads, tuns, butts, pins firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, butter churns, pipes, and breakers. A barrel is specifically a measure of the size of a cask.
Today the use of traditionally made casks and barrels is mostly limited to the wine and spirits industry where coopers now work with machines to make barrels, but it's still considered that the creme de la creme of barrels are those hand-made by professional coopers.
The History of The Barrel
When was the barrel invented?
The Ancient Gauls Invented the Technique of Making Barrels Or at least that's what I was told when I visited the Gaulois village Coriobona.
Coriobona is a village that recreates the life of the ancient Gauls. It's is just north of Confolens in South West France, near the village of Esse and just forty minutes or so from Les Trois Chenes. It was a super outing and we had a wonderful day looking around the village and then visiting the nearby towns of Lesterps and Confolens.
to get back to the origins of the barrel. The fact that barrels are made from wood makes their earliest use difficult to pinpoint and it's true that wine was first stored and transported in the amphora (an earthenware pot). Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us that ancient Mesopotamians made casks from palm wood - which is hard to bend into shape) to transport wine along the Euphrates.
Oak has been used to make wine casks for at least two millennia, their use became widespread during the Roman empire - which brings us back to the ancient Gauls. It was only a question of time before it was discovered that the oak played a part in the taste of the wine and it would seem that it was as late as the 1960s and 1970s before experiments were made by Robert Mondavi before wine-makers in the United States quantified the contribution that different types of oak and barrel styles made to the quality of the final product.
Why the Oak Cask Affects the Flavours
And so why Limousin oak casks are so famous
Each tree, each year in each forest in each country is different! When you think that some cognacs, for example RÃ©my Martin Grand Cru, will sell for well over USD $1500 per bottle, every little consideration counts.
Oak trees have a growth spurt in Spring and in a good year they'll grow very fast. This leads to a coarser grain which is said to have coarser tannins and lead to less subtle flavours. Because of this each barrel is made with a range of differing woods.
But it's not only the growing that leads to differing flavours. This is just the start of the process. The oak is harvested and then carefully stored. The exact place in the wood pile will also affect the oak.
One of the most important parts of the process, as far as flavour is concerned, is the toasting of the barrel. This is when the barrels staves are held over a flame, and the taste of the wine depends on the strength of the flame, the time toasted, the water content of the oak, and many other variables. No wonder some of these wines and spirits are so highly prized.
I wonder what effect global warming and changing climates will have on our wines and spirits.
Image courtesy of Gerard Prins Wikimedia Commons
Brandy Making in Cognac - Limousin oak barrels are used to make brandy
What is cognac? It's a type of brandy made in the town of Cognac in the Charente, south west France.
Brandy making in the Charente is big business and it's deffinitely worth a visit, whether you like brandy or not, to visit the many chateaux that will allow you in to see how the brandy is made, and, of course, give you the opportunity to buy. There are so many big names, and less well known companies who produce brandy here - Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, RÃ©my Martin, Bache-Gabrielsen/Dupuy, Braastad, Camus, Chateau Fontpinot, Delamain, Pierre Ferrand, Frapin, Gaston de Casteljac, Hine, Marcel Ragnaud, Moyet, Otard, and Cognac Croizet.
The flavours in the cognac derived from Limousin oak depend on so many things. Newer casks contain more tanninsso are often used for the newly distilled eaux-de-vie and will give the cognac a darker, stronger oak flavour. Cognac masters will use several different barrels to create a 'house style'.
Image: Chateau Otard, Cognac
Whisky Making in Scotland
Are Scotch whisky barrels always second-hand?
Scotland is the perfect place to make whisky. Cool temperatures and clean air suround the oak of the casks and affects the maturing contents. This is why Scottish whisky is smooth, golden and so highly prized.
Traditionally the Scottish whisky industry used second hand, 500-litre sherry casks called butts however due to a scarcity of these during the Spanish civil war, 1930s, the Scotch distilleries had to look elsewhere.
We have seen that barrels affect flavour and while some producers, like Labrot & Graham, makers of bourbon choose new barrels, others, such as Glenmorangie chooses used bourbon casks. Most Scottish distillers prefer the more subtle flavours of old, mellowed wood.
The flavours are honed by different use of oak and barrels. Some finish their whisky in different casks for a year or two, to modify the flavour and Limousin Quercus robur oak barrel previously used to mature cognac, is used to give special flavours to the Glenlivet 12-year-old whisky. ,
St. George Spiritsin America, has begun to experiment with barrels in it's production of single malt whisky. They used bourbon barrels (82%), new French oak barrels, (12%), and port casks, (6%). Such finess shows the importance of the barrel to the final taste of whisky.
It's Spelled 'Whiskey' When It Comes From Ireland
So What is the difference between Scottish and Irish Whiskey?
Apart from the spelling! Well, for a start, the Irish claim that it was they who invented the drink. There are other more tangible differences which lie in the methods used to produce the whiskey.
The big difference between Scottish and Irish whisky is the distilling phase which is made three times with Irish, instead of twice with Scottish whisky, and the Irish whiskey is distilled in larger than normal copper "pot" stills. This creates an Irish whiskey that is lighter and with a more delicate and subtle flavour.
The Scots sprout the barley before drying. The Irish use raw and malted barley dried with peat smoke, while Scottish whisky is made entirely with malted barley.
Finally Scottish whiskey is left to age in the cask at least 2 years while Irish whiskey is kept for a minimum of one year longer.
Did You Know That Whisky Is Made In France?
And part of their success lies in the Limousin barrel
I did think that all the best whisky was made in Scotland or Ireland until today, but I now know that for the last 80 years French distilleries have been making single malt whisky. The industry is particularly developed in Brittany because of the salty climate. A new style of whisky has been created at Finister, 'le Eddu'.
At least part of the success of French Whisky production lies in the ready availability of good barrels. French whisky producers are getting some incredible results from maturation in barrels that have been used in the production of French wines, including white, red, sweet, dry, fortified, and even sparkling wine such as the famous Champagne.
For example Brenne Whisky from the Brenne Estate launched in October 2012, is matured in new Limousin oak barrels and then finished in barrels previously used as Cognac casks. Bastille 1789 Hand-Crafted Whisky made at the Daucourt Distillery (Distillerie Daucourt) is aged for 5 - 7 years in a combination of French Limousin oak, cherry wood and acacia casks.
The Angels Share
If the angels don't take their share - the rest is not worth taking!
Sometimes called the Angels' Portion, this is the share of the brandy or whisky that's said to be taken by the angels.
Because the oak of the barrels is porous, moisture can pass through it. A proportion of the spirits in each cask evaporates annually and is lost to the heavens. This is known as the "angels' share" or the Angels' Portion.
The exact amount of the Angels' Share seem to vary according to differing accounts. Some say it's normally between 1 to 2,5% a year, while others propose up to 8% loss in the first year, and about 3% each year after that. If you assume an evaporation rate of 2.5%, over 50 years a 350 litre barrel of cognac will lose 40% of it's alcohol.
A barrel's surroundings affect this evaporation. Humid atmospheres with moderate temperatures will lead to more alcohol than water evaporating through the wood. Dry air and high temperatures will result in more water being lost.
If this loss doesn't occur, there may be a problem with the barrel and this leads to the saying that If the angels don't take their share - the rest isn't worth taking!
The Angels Share - The book of the new film by Ken Loach
Read The Angels' Share by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty on Kindle
Features: Full screenplay, Production notes from cast and crew, A Lesson in the Appreciation of Malt Whisky by Master of the Quaich, Charles MacLean
Limousin Oak Wine Barrels
Variety is the spice of life
As mentioned above, Limousin oak is not always the first choice for the wine industry, Quercus alba, and Quercus sessilis are preferred.
Winemakers try to balance the fruit and oak flavours in their wine, but every year fruit from the same region and oak from the same forest, made into barrels by the same cooper will yield different tastes.
This is because every patch of the forest and vineyard is unique, every year the weather will be different. Oak and grape vines are natural products, and that is all part of the fascination of wine.
Has This Whetted Your Appetite for Limousin? - Or just for the whisky?
If you do make it here, do visit us. Les Trois Chenes Bed and Breakfast is wonderfully placed right on the border of the Limousin and the Charente. Walk in the woods of Limousin and visit the brandy chateaux of Cognac.
Does this make you thirst to visit Limousin?
Oak Barrel Shabby Chic Poster
This Oak cask makes a wonderful ornament in this beautiful garden
I've made my photo of a Limousin oak barrel in a barn of my friends into a poster on Zazzle. You can buy it and you can personalize it by adding your own images and text. She has a wonderful touch and has decorated her barn just enough to make it interesting but not enough to spoil the authenticity of a French barn built for animals and hay and you get a glimpse of the lovely garden beyond.
You Too Can Own A Genuine Oak Barrel - Or something made from old oak barrels
They are beautiful objects! When we moved into our French farmhouse, there were several barrels left in the barns and I cherish them. We also find lots of bits of barrels, the staves, the metal hoops. I use the barrels as tables and planters and the hoops as decorations in the garden.
You too can have your very own oak barrels and decorative objects made from barrels. Here are just a few to choose from ....
Oak Barrles at the Wine Festival at the Caves of Saint Sornin - St Sornin, Charente
St Sornin is in the Charente next to Limousin so do try to catch the festival - it's a great day out for all the family with lots of wine on show, but also a wide variety of local French produce.
Where Did I Get My Information From? - Links to source material
- The Economist
The science of ageing whisky The water of life
- Whiskey Wise
Whiskey barrels - Oak gives real character to the Whiskey
- Cognac Expert
The oak barrel: Critical for Cognac ageing
Cooping as a profession
- Oak Barrels Maturation: Consistency or Chaos
By Richard Gawel
More about the differences between Scottish and Irish whisky or Whiskey
- French Whisky
Brewed at finistere
The Oak Trees at Videix, Limousin
Coopers From Around the World - Making barrels and casks is a worldwide business
This barrel making business is situated in the Krasnodar region in the South of Russia on the coast of the Black Sea and is one of the oldest in the country. It was established 1949 in response to the increasing demand for grapes, wine and cognac.