February 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

French Forest Stays Consistent

The small forest at Jupilles is renowned for its tight-grained barrels

by Alan Goldfarb
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Once logs from the Bercé forest reach the Seguin Moreau log yard (above), they are classified by forest of origin while they air dry for about 30 months.

  • The 150- to 200-year-old trees in Jupilles provide some of the most consistently tight-grained oak of any French forest.
  • The forest of Bercé (its official name) surrounds the little village of Jupilles. It is one of the smallest forests in France used for stave cultivation.
  • U.S. winemakers we interviewed like to use Jupilles barrels (about $1,000 apiece) for Chardonnay, white Rhônes, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Jupilles is not a new forest for oak staves, but a couple of California winemakers who use barrels sourced from the spot in northwestern France were reluctant to talk about it, for fear of losing their allocations.

When told that Wines & Vines was sending a correspondent to France to research oak forests, more than one winemaker independently insisted, "You've got to go to Jupilles." So, we did.

What is it about the forest at Jupilles that makes some winemakers drool over the properties its oak staves may impart, especially at the moment when some French cooperages are playing down single-forest barrels because they cannot officially verify their authenticity? (See "The Forest or the Trees," Wines & Vines, December 2008.)

Big interest in a small forest

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Located near Sarthe, north of the Loire Valley, the forest of Bercé (its official name) surrounds the little village of Jupilles. It is one of the smallest forests used for stave cultivation in France. About 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Atlantic Ocean, the forest at Jupilles (pronounced joo-PEE) is only 12,000 hectares (about 30,000 acres). Maintained by the state as a national park, the dense, pristine woods are intersected by quaint directional lampposts, as if it were a sanctuary in the middle of Paris.

But because of the density of the 150- to 200-year-old trees that are harvested for staves, the single-most important thing one needs to know about Jupilles is that it is perhaps one of the few oak forests in France that has consistently tight-grained oak throughout. So tight is the grain that the sawn end of a tree resembles a human finger, with its "print" visible only under a microscope.

In comparison to the more renowned forest of Tronçais, Bercé's trees are so unvarying that it's nearly impossible to harvest one that doesn't possess extremely tight grain, and those tight-grained barrel staves are thought to contribute to some of the finest wines in the world.

Whereas Jupilles' logs have universally fine-grained wood, it's a fact that only parts of Tronçais produce equivalent staves. It was therefore mesmerizing listening to Seguin-Moreau's timber buyer, Philippe Quintard, talk about the profile of Jupilles one early October afternoon.

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The French village of Jupilles is adjacent to the Bercé forest, kept as a national park.
At parcelle 227A, alongside felled trees waiting to be hauled to various cooperages, Quintard said that while he likes all the forests, Bercé in particular "is a forest whose trees are homogeneous. It's continually consistent. The trees are fuller and straighter than those in most forests, which means they are easier to cut, and the staves are more uniform. And the grain is tres fines because of slow growth. The Tronçais, for instance, has a parcel in the east that is good. Though in the center it's young, and in the west the woods are a little better, but more of it is not good."

What is so good, then, about the wood from Bercé? What does it do for wine?

Because of the "super" fine grain, as one Napa Valley winemaker who uses Jupilles characterized it, many recommend it for white wines. Artisan Barrels of Oakland, which sells Bercé barrels made by Tonnellerie Saint Martin of France, likes it for Chardonnay and white Rhônes.

"It is a wonderfully floral, aromatic barrel for grapes themselves, with more of a white spice compared to a dark, brown spice," Artisan's Gerhard Zeimer concluded. "It has a sweet creaminess, but not like American oak. It has a delicacy and refinement for whites."

Reds and whites

There are winemakers who believe that barrels from Bercé do well by red wines, too. Dorothy Schuler, whose Bodegas Paso Robles winery is an outlier, in that it specializes in Spanish and Portuguese varietals, said of Jupilles barrels: "I love them. They allow slow extraction for my 'Iberia' blend," made from Tempranillo, Graciano, Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão.

"If you like tight grain and are willing to pay for it, it's a good barrel," said Schuler, who pays about $1,000 (seemingly the going rate for Jupilles) for barrels that she purchases from Artisan and made at Saint Martin, or by Dargaud et Jaeglé Tonnellerie, both of which are in Burgundy. "I don't make over-oaked wine, and I'm not making high-tannic wines, and (the Bercé barrel) ages it beautifully." Schuler ages the wine for two years in barrels that are normally air-dried for about 30 months in France.

Dave Hopkins, the winemaker at Los Olivos, Calif.-based Bridlewood, an E. & J. Gallo property, also believes in Jupilles barrels for his Syrahs. He likes the elegance that the barrels afford him.

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The density of trees from the Bercé forest create a consistently tight grain throughout.
"One of my issues has always been in tasting Syrahs, the wood was too coarse for me, so I started using more Pinot Noir barrels based on the elegance factor," said Hopkins, who has been using the Bercé barrels since 2003. "Bridlewood's house style is all about elegance and integrated tannin structure and an acid-tannin balance. When they age, it creates wines that have a fruit forwardness and balanced structure about them. Jupilles falls right in there."

The Syrah he makes in those barrels exhibits violet and licorice aromas on the finish, "more than from a Tronçais barrel. I use them strictly as red wine barrels," he continued, saying that half of the heads on those barrels are not toasted. "These wines have a lot of natural tannins, and with the Jupilles, it does give the wines a great finish."

Tightness of the grain

x A Napa Valley winemaker likes the elegance of the Jupilles barrels too, utilizing them for his Cabernet Sauvignons. "The grain is super tight, and the wine is like itself from start to finish," said Mike Drash, the winemaker at Luna Vineyards.

Explaining what he means by a wine that is "like itself," Drash said, "With some barrels, the nose will draw you in, sometimes, in the mid-palate would be the best part about it. But with the Jupilles, the nose, the mid-palate, the finish, is the longest of the (barrel trial) group."

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Seguin Moreau timber buyer Philipe Quintard takes a seat on a log near Jupilles.
Drash buys Jupilles barrels produced by Saint Martin and Treuil Tonnellerie de Brive. "They give it an elegance, more than barrels from any other forest," he said. "But they need more time (24-26 months) in barrel, because the tight grain takes a long integration. It produces wines that are cohesive and balanced."

The downside of buying barrels from the Bercé is that because the forest is so small, there isn't a lot of wood coming out of there each year, and therefore, production is small. This led Drash to cite an anecdote: "It's a running joke (among his colleagues) that there are more Jupilles barrels out there than is mathematically possible."

It also leads to Hopkins' conclusion: "You can say it's the best-kept secret" in the wine industry. "They don't produce a lot because there isn't a big demand, because (winemakers) haven't taken the time to look at them.…"

For him, though, "It's a cutting-edge forest that matches extremely well with cool- to cold-climate Syrahs."
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