Behind every good wine, you’ll find a great barrel. At least, that’s what becomes obvious when visiting Radoux cooperage in Santa Rosa, located north of San Francisco.
An active member of the Franco-American Chamber of Commerce, Zandvliet enlightened us on an ancient French know-how: the manufacture of barrels for winemaking.
There are about a hundred manufacturers in France but only five of them produce in the United States. Radoux USA has settled there almost 25 years ago and, has become one of the most important French coopers based in the United States and it represents the world’s largest volume market in volume. It also supplies the Canadian and Mexican markets.
Radoux USA produces no less than 165 product references to address the needs of its customers who want to maintain the same characteristics for their wines. As you can guess, vintners have unique requirements for every wine, every vintage.
Everything starts with the raw material, oak, king of forests. This is indeed the tree of choice for the manufacture of barrels. White oak type in the United States and sessile oak in France, the sessile oak takes about two centuries to reach maturity and grows slower than its American cousin.
The wood texture being different due to climate and species, we can saw a trunk of an American oak while we must split the French oak to ensure its perfect seal.
Perhaps most critical step comes after the fact that the oak has been split to give the staves, it must remain at least 2 years outdoors, weather permitting to dry slowly and achieve optimum aging.
We decided to share with you some essential steps of manufacturing without going into too many technical details.
Step 1 – Assembly of staves – Since they are not of equal size, they are assembled so that it will takes about thirty to make a barrel. The assembly is made literally with the naked eye, thanks to the unique know-how of the expert worker who disposes them before circling them. The strapping is also done manually with elbow grease and lots of pressure.
The product of this stage is beautifully called “roses”.
Step 2 – The toast – This second step is very important and is performed by a worker who places the barrel on a custom burner. It’s the duration of toasting and the temperature which makes all the difference. It brings out the unique characteristic of the wood (tannins, levels of polyphenols, vanillin…)
This is a crucial step, which requires a great mastery adapted to each client. This expertise is rare and some of Radoux’s workers have been there for almost 20 years.
Step 3 – The shaping of the barrel – Radoux has developed a unique machine to cut and form the barrel after toasting. We can’t show you a picture, we did not have the right to take one… it’s a well kept secret that is worth gold!
Step 4 – Strapping and assembling funds – Again, everything is done by hand.
Step 5 – Finishes – In order to guarantee the perfect sealing of the bottom with the rest of the barrel, one proceeds with luting, a mixture of flour and water … Then to check the waterproofing, it is put under pressure. The barrel is sanded, strapped and marked with the customer name.
The production is done throughout the year and is stored to be delivered mainly between July and September, just before the grapes picking.
The fact that the wood is a natural material and that the manufacturing process is still very manual, gives a unique finish to each barrel but it is very difficult for the cooper to guarantee a 100% constant quality for his client from one year to the next.
The challenge did not stop Radoux from innovating. In order not to remain dependent on the geographical origin of the wood, Radoux was the first cooper to analyze and categorize the values it emitted.
Through research, and measurement of all those parameters in a systematic way, Radoux has developed a tool called Oakscan that gives the value of polyphenols that will develop each barrel according to its toasting and its grain.
The product called Pronektar is an other example of an innovation carried by Radoux. It came from a simple observation: each stave produces chips (a wound for the cooper because it is wasted raw material)…despite the skepticism of the industry, Radoux decided to use these chips. Logically, if you introduce chips of a certain type into stainless steel or concrete tanks, you will obtain wines with different flavors according to the characteristics of the chips, the time and the quantity that you have introduced into these vats.
This does not turn a concrete vat into an oak barrel, but the results are really interesting according to Louis Zandvliet.
Today, this family rooted company has been acquired by a large French group (TFF), as one of the keys of the trade resides in the capacity to have access to the raw material, the wood in this case specific. Thanks to TFF, Radoux has been able to keep its expertise, but has been able to considerably increase its stock of wood and its aging capacity, and consequently the quality of its finished product.
From a small family business in rural France, Radoux has become a must in the production of wines in North America and California in particular. Another example that combines ancestral know-how and innovation.
Thanks to Louis ZANDVLIET, Managing Director of Radoux USA