Marc Grenier's open wooden vats, tronconic vats and foudres can be found in many vat rooms today. While the early- and mid-20th century has seen many wineries in France replace their wooden fermentation vats with large, cheap and easy-to-maintain cement vats, the last quarter of the century saw a revival in the manufacturing and use of these wooden containers. The cement vats had been introduced in the wineries as early as in the early 20th century, says Marc Grenier. This had rapidly led to the fall into oblivion of the traditional wooden vat because of price and convenience. Marc Grenier certainly bears a large responsibility for the massive come-back of large-size tronconic wooden vats for the vinification and elevage of the wines. After beginning with reparing old wooden vats for Burgundy wineries, he went into making new ones, and brought many modern innovations to these ancient containers by adding large stainless-steel doors and lids that allowed these tronconic vats to be used not only for the fermentation but also for the elevage. Many of these innovations were later copied by other cooperages.
He rarely falls into a routine when manufacturing his large wooden vats, as each of his clients is asking for custom sizes and precise specifications depending of their vat room size and height, or of their vinification style. Compared to the smaller casks, these wooden containers are like big vessels that demand skilled expertise close I would say to those of a naval architect. Lesser known than many big cooperages, this cooperage has retained an artisanal size, in spite of having contributed to about 1900 wooden vats and foudres since the start of the company in 1982. Marc Grenier employs between 4 and 6 workers depending of the work load. I had noticed along my visits in the wineries that many demanding artisan-vintners used Grenier wooden vats, and when I visited Hervé Villemade, he encouraged me to visit his cooperage in Burgundy.
If most of the production at Grenier consists in Tronconic vats, the cooperage also makes foudres, which are big-volume casks, with a capacity between 1000 and 6000 liters. The capacity of Grenier's wooden tronconic vats goes from 800 liters fror a small one to 15 000 liters for the biggest. You have several types of tronconic vats. The Burgundy one, which is open (not covered with a lid) is used only for the fermentation of the wine (the one on the left on the top-left picture on the wall). These open vats are the ones that you can see for example in Philippe Pacalet's vat room (pic on top) or in Albert-Bichot's wineries (scroll down for the picture). Then, along the years, Marc Grenier has engineered many additional features on his tronconic vats, in particular the moveable stainless-steel top and built-in temperature control and thermmometer, which allowed a much wider use of the wooden container, first as a sophisticated wooden fermentation vat and then as elevage vat. He deposed the trademark of his innovations under the name of Vinistock, but his stainless-steel additions were nontheless replicated by other cooperages. When you see them elsewhere, remember that Marc Grenier was the original inventor of these stainless-steel inlays. The buyers come from the different wine regions of France (60% - with the exception of Bordeaux, a region which is reluctant to buy in Burgundy) and from abroad (40%), the export countries being Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, South-Africa, Australia, New-Zealand, Greece. He uses only Frenck oak, mostly from central France and eatern France.
If he began his activity in 1982 by renovating old open-top wooden vats for wineries (some were 100 years old) , he stopped doing that 4 years ago. Actually, at the very beginning, he worked with his grand-father in law who had a vat-renovation workshop in the main street of Corberon. When he settled shop himself, he kept doing this, finding old, disused wooden vats in wineries and remodelling them for a new life, another century of good services. To have an idea of how such disused-vats looked like before his renovation work, just look at the tiny one that he gave to Philippe Pacalet a few years ago (picture on left, shot at Pacalet), it is at least one-hundred years old according to Marc Grenier and keeps working (ending its life in Pacalet's vatroom is a rather nice ending for a vat) without having been renovated, except for the addition of a stainless tab.. Having seen myself several of his renovated vats in several wineries, I can imagine it takes nearly as much time as making a new one : they often looked like new, each having gone through total dismantling, rework and replacement of the damaged staves, plus installment of a stainless-steel opening and screwable top-cap. Even the wood of the old staves look new after having been lightly planed down and you harly believes these are 60-, 80- or 100-year old wooden vats...
The making of large-capacity vats implies the use of much thicher staves, which in turn ask for a much longer toasing of the inside of the cask. When a regular cask needs a 30-minutes or 45-minutes fire on its inside, a large wooden vat needs an entire day, for example they start at 7am, at noon they succeed to hold it tight with cables to wrap the thick hoops around it, and at the end of the afternoon they finish the job by putting it upside down and fastening the last hoops. They keep watering a bit the outside all along the operation (and the inside too occasionally) to prevent the wood from cracking and at the end of the day the huge vat gets its final bending and shape. Depending of the vignerons' wishes he is asked many different types of bending, angle and proportions, which mean differently-shaped staves and more or less arduous assembly with the hoops.
Another difference with the other tonnelleries is that Marc Grenier buys the wood to a wood cutter, often whole trees having gone through a minimal preparation. Cask makers usually buy ready-to-use staves to a mérandier who has already selected the useable wood. He will have much more waste (40% to 50%) because he has to select himself the right wood parts across the rough boards. He says that choosing where in the rough boards to carve out the staves is already an arduous exercise that asks for a good knowledge of the tree wood-texture in the context of a whole tree. Even after having been delivered by the sawmill, the wood will go through a long preparation before being worked and assembled in a vat.First, it is stored for quite a long time outside as Marc Grenier wants it to have dried naturally in the open for three years before working on it. Then it will go through several successive transformations spaced in time.He makes sure that his workers always keep the workshop, the vats and the staves immaculate. The first reason is that the vats have to remain free of stains or dust that could have a negative incidence on the wine. Pointing to the 9000-liter vat above, if it is later filled with a 30-Euro/liter Pommard, you get a 270 000-Euro load of wine that could suffer if the wood was not properly handled. He takes the example of the Romanée Conti for which he made some 25 wooden vats along the years.The second reason is that the French-administration agents who check the sanitation rules on the workplace are not complacent and always find new details to criticize the installations for health concerns, and ask for new investments. He says that the new obsession of the administration is oak dust, it's like "there's saw dust on the ground, everyone is going to get cancer"...
Marc Grenier says that he has sometimes to accompany the vats to the customer's winery with a worker and to build up the vats again inside the cellar, when its door is too narrow for a normal delivery, which is often the case in historic cellars. This additional work is not always possible because of the impending workload of the cooperage. Normally, such a vat is like a cask and can be set apart and reassembled by a skilled cooper.
Back to the wood : it arrives from the sawmill after having barely sliced into boards, sometimes it has been cut 6 months before. It will keep being exposed in the open and dry slowly for at least 2 years, or 2 years and a half in total, then, it will gradually be worked upon for several more months before arriving on the assembly line. Marc Grenier says that the natural drying in the open, under the weather conditions of rain and temperature changes through the seasons is essential for the quality of a vat or a foudre. Wood is a living material, it needs time to adapt and its readyness must not be accelerated.The nearly-black aspect of the tree above is misleading : when the wood will be worked-upon and planed, its beautiful, vibrant oak colors will shine again.The selected trees are of the haute-futaie category, meaning they are 150 years old. As said in an earlier post, the wood sales from the French forests, both private and state owned, are managed by the French Forest Administration, the ONF. The ONF tree sales are closely monitored by the sawmills working for the cooperages and the trees are usually selected by the buyer even before having been cut down.The ONF ties the wood cuttings to new plantations and over the years the French forests have kept growing in surface to reach an estimated 15,5 million hectares today, or 28% of France.
The boards and staves have numbers tagged on them because all the wood is checked against pesticides or chemical products. He scraps wood samples for each purchased tree and gets it analyzed at a laboratory in Beaune. The tagged codes help trace the wood to the purchased tree and to the lab checks. But the sawmill people where he buys his wood select only chemicals-free trees for him and the checks are just a security routine. But it is interesting to know that pesticides and various chemicals can find their way into trees. It has to do with trees growing along fields, and the chemicals found by the labs are sometimes pesticides that are no longer in use, but were common in the 60s' or 70s'. That's why choosing the tree, preferably in the millde of a forest, is an important step when dealing with casks or vats.
For the story, Marc Grenier, who has seven brothers and sisters, was not at all in the wine/cooperage world initially. One day, as a youth, he came in the region to work as a picker for the harvest and met a beautiful girl among the pickers who was to become his wife. A Haute-Saone native, he had never seen a cask or a vat at the age of 21. But his grandfather inlaw was a cooper who repaired wooden vats for a living in Corberon and that was it...
The Marc-Grenier Foudrier cooperage takes part to the viticultural techniques, tools and machine fair in Angers,the SIVAL, which takes place a few days before the famed Loire wine fair there.