Fashion is an important element in wine consumption. Think of the Pinot Grigio craze, then Prosecco, Picpoul de Pinet, Pecorino . . . (Perhaps all that’s needed is a P?)
But fashion affects wine production as well as consumption. At the end of the last century, there was a fashion for micro-oxygenation, bubbling tiny amounts of oxygen through wine to soften the tannins. At the moment, putting whole berries, sometimes entire bunches, into the fermentation vat rather than crushing the grapes beforehand is à la mode.
One major barometer of fashion over the past 40 years has been the material in which wine is made and aged. The physical properties of oak are particularly suitable for wine. Small oak barrels, often called barriques, became hugely fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s. Oak barrel maturation was seen as a sine qua non of making good, modern wine, Chardonnays as well as reds. The emerging wine exporters of South America, for example, would measure their sophistication in terms of how many new barrels they bought each year.
The US has a thriving cooperage industry but American oak is generally sweet and more suitable for whiskey than fine wine (Ridge Vineyards in California provides admirable exceptions to this generalisation). The most fashionable oak by far for wine has been French. France’s oak forests, a national treasure, are managed by a special government agency and have long provided French coopers with reliable raw material for what became a massively lucrative business supplying ambitious wine producers around the world with barrels that cost hundreds of euros each.
Key elements in wine sales literature became the exact region where the oak was grown and how heavily it was “toasted” — even though insiders would probably claim that how carefully it was selected and “seasoned” (drying the wood to leach out harsher compounds) is more important than either of these factors.
But this century has seen a new winemaking accessory du jour: a wooden fermentation vat made by Stockinger, an Austrian family in Waidhofen, a little town in pre-Alpine countryside halfway between Salzburg and Vienna. Conventional fermentation vats are straight-sided, but these are tronconic (shaped like a truncated cone), allowing the winemaker to punch down the floating cap of grape skins more easily.
Stockinger doesn’t have brochures or even a website, so unsophisticated is its sales effort. Yet so admired is the quality of Stockinger’s oak and workmanship that winemakers around the world have been lining up to acquire its handiwork. As Robin Davis of UK importers Swig put it to me recently: “Stockinger seems to be the winemaker’s Strad[ivarius] — a must-have to show the visitors, like a barrique in the early 1990s, a concrete egg in the 2000s, qvevri in the teenies and concrete tanks somewhere in there.”
The public face of Stockinger is an ebullient German-born winemaker, who runs his own small wine estate in Roussillon, south-west France. Thomas Teibert dropped off some wine samples at our house in the Languedoc at midday recently. We offered him coffee or water. Wine please, he said firmly, and proceeded to pour himself three glasses of Bollinger.
Teibert studied winemaking in Germany and worked in various wine regions, including Austria. In 1994, he was exposed to the handiwork of Stockinger at Graf Hardegg winery. He started to represent it in Germany, working increasingly closely with Franz Stockinger. “He’s the wood man and I became the wine nose of the company. I developed the blends and toasts and we worked together. We didn’t like the taste of oak in the wine, so before everyone else, we made an ultralight toasting. In the beginning, people said, ‘why should I pay for an expensive barrel which has no barrique taste?’ But, little by little, we established our clients and took on other markets.”
The first foreign wine producer to buy Stockinger’s fermentation vats was Antinori in the 1980s. The important Florentine house used them for its Tignanello and Solaia Supertuscan reds. Stockinger vats went on to be beloved by a wide range of top Italian producers such as Giacomo Conterno.
In 2003, Teibert, who had always wanted a wine domaine of his own, met Gérard Gauby of Roussillon at a particularly smart wine fair in Switzerland. Teibert liked Gauby’s biodynamic wines so much that, in 2005, he set up Domaine de l’Horizon in the same village, Calce. Today, he has 15 hectares of low-yielding vines up to 100 years old and capable of producing some compelling wines.
A French base is useful for anyone selling barrels. Domaine de Chevalier, the Graves property making particularly subtle whites as well as reds, opened the door for Stockinger among the Bordeaux elite at a time when the tide was beginning to turn from overtly oaky wines to a subtler style. Teibert told me proudly that his favourite Languedoc producer, Rémy Pedreno of Roc d’Anglade, says there are two sorts of coopers: one of wood and one of wine.
In 2014, Teibert was introduced to California ex-sommelier and winemaker Raj Parr. A mutual friend in the wine business saw a similarity between these wine-obsessed characters and ensured they met up when both were in Beaune. The result was that Parr offered to help distribute an allocation of a few hundred Stockinger barrels in the US. Such is Parr’s social media presence — and the reclame of Stockinger — that within two hours of a single Facebook post, the entire allocation was sold. “We didn’t realise we were so well known,” Teibert told me proudly.
The Stockingers — Franz and his 30-year-old son Mathias, also a master cooper — do not frequent the wine circuit. Hardly drinkers, they’re much happier back home working with their 30 fellow artisans in what they claim is the oldest cooperage in the world — it was founded in 1516. Franz’s father bought the business in the 1950s. Ornate balconies were once a speciality but gradually wine vats and barrels took over.
French coopers, naturally enough, specialise in French oak but nowadays tend to buy some from eastern Europe as well now that forests there are better managed than in the communist era. The Stockingers have experimented with many different oak provenances, including French, but for the moment tend to use about equal parts Austrian (grown mainly around the capital), German, Hungarian and Romanian. (Romania has some excellent forests even if not that many excellent coopers yet.)
The result of over-oakiness becoming much less fashionable has been that the sort of wine producers I talk to have been buying far fewer new barrels (the newer the barrel, the oakier the wine) than they used to, and also larger sizes so that any oak flavour is less pronounced. I imagined that this might have an effect on the bottom line of the French coopers but Teibert told me not to worry. There are always producers seeking barrels in new wine-producing countries such as China — and anyway, “the US is a dream market for barrels — the best”.
France’s cooper aristocracy
All of these are bigger than Stockinger
François Frères group
Seguin Moreau, owned by Oeneo, which also owns the Diam technical cork business
Charlois group, including Berthomieu and Saury
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