Tonnellerie Blanchard (now Tonnellerie du Val de Loire - means "Loire Valley Cooperage")
Here is a cooperage which in spite of its lauded products is still largely under the radar, for the general public, at least, because many clients names, from the Loire to Bordeaux and Burgundy sound familiar.
If Mr Jacky had been a Japanese, he'd probably be a Living National Treasure because as a skillful handicraft-master, he understands many mysteries of the Art of cooperage and of the underlying implications of wood grades and qualities. He has been working since the age of 15 in what was then his father's cooperage, founded in Vineuil (Loire) in 1932. Initially a wine broker (an intermediary between the vignerons and the Negoce), his father opened his cask-making business and hired several employees, selling the barriques to the vignerons and the Negoce of the region. Casks were still ahead of bottlings then and there were many small-size cooperages all over the country. The Blanchard Copperage retained during all these years its artisanal spirit and expertise, and it sells its casks to demanding vintners and estates of the Loire, Burgundy and Bordeaux. The cooperage is located in Vineuil, a village south of the Loire river on the other side from Blois. The name of this village says it all : Vineuil, or Vinolium comes from Vino-ialo in the ancient Gaulish-language (which is close to Latin), which means "where the vineyards are located". The vineyards of the village proper were uprooted in favor of other cultures or for construction (Blois is so close) but the cooperage remained and the next Appellation is Cheverny, some 10 kilometers away.
The key of the success for the selection of the wood lies with these people, the "merraindiers" who will make the right choice (most of the time, blind : the tree still standing on its roots).
And another central actor in this story is the mighty Office National des Forêts (ONF), the French Administration that manages the huge state-owned forested areas in France and most of the wood sales, including for wood originating from private forests. France is maybe the European country which has the best-preserved forests, and the ONF can be credited for that because it takes care that cutting and replanting go along and work for the long term. 28 % of France's surface is made of forests and woods, this makes 15,5 million hectares and it is growing by 40 000 hectares a year (see this page-in French). France is said to hold 40 % of all forests in the European Community. Now, if one third of French forests are publicly-owned, the ONF still manages 80 % of standing-wood sales and you get to know from the local ONF branches where the next sales will occur, because the cutters (mérraindiers) can then go see and check the selected and marked trees in the forest before they're sawed. Complicated process indeed and that may be why there are virtually no foreign buyers in these sales. The sales are of the auction type and you can theorically check on the ONF website for the next scheduled wood auctions online (see chapter : Consulter l'offre de bois en ligne) after you followed the registration.
Speaking of 1942-1943, he says that during the German occupation, as the Germans viewed the cooperages as vital for their own needs, they exempted the cooperage workers from the STO, the compulsory work in Germany. He says that whenever an enlisted German soldier happened to be a cooperage worker in the civilian life, his officers sometimes detached him from his military duty to let him work in the nearest French cooperage. That's how two German coopers landed in a cooperage near Contres, a village of the Loire valley nearby. There was actually an unexpected know-how exchange as these coopers were expert on foudres (big-capacity casks).
But I'm going too fast : the staves go through multiple works and machines before being fit for the final assembly line :
first, it get its right length throuh a machine called "écourteuse", to shorten the staves a bit.
Then it goes through the "dolleuse-évideuse", where it get the outside polished and shaped. The interior of the stave is also lightly carved with the same machine.
Then, we go to the "jointeuse" (jointer) [third pic above]. Very important stage : this seemingly simple machine with a pendulum movement makes the right narrowing of the staves. The narrowing-differential between each side of the same stave, the widest point being positionned at a different level on each side of the same stave [see pic on the right], helps detemine the progressivity of the cask's belly.
After that (if I didn't miss something), the staves will be ready for assembling.
After the cask has been assembled, other machines help finish and better the inside, especially the part near the extremities. There's a old machine here that has several blades working in rotation on the inside of the cask (near the botton and top), to better the tightness of the future cask. This machine also dates from the 1940s' and the modern equivalents are designed in a way that they don't allow such a good work. I was advised not publish a detailed picture of this multi-blade system and I can understand that...
While the Blanchard casks are sold also in the Loire (Puzelat, Villemade, Bois Lucas), the core of its clientele is in Burgundy and Bordeaux, like for example the Maison Albert Bichot in Beaune. I'll try to get permission to name other famous estates from these regions which buy their casks. An order has also been delivered recently to the United States.
As said earlier, the Tonnellerie Blanchard (now "Tonnellerie de Val de Loire", or "Loire Valley Cooperage" in French) is being bought by the family company which has been selecting Blanchard woods for years. Jacky Blanchard, who is on his way to retirement, still works in the cooperage to transmit all his know-how and recipes to the new team. The cooperage will relocate in the near future to the mother-company facilities, which lie a couple of kilometers away.