Châteaux that make their own barrels are exceedingly rare. Apart from the most famous (Lafite, Pétrus, Margaux, etc.), almost all Bordeaux estates buy their barrels ready-made. Château Smith Haut Lafitte decided to make their own barrels starting in 1995.
Barrels have a major role to play in the flavour of our wines. Special attention is paid to the origin of the oak, the degree of toasting, seasoning methods, and preparation of the stave wood.
Since 1993, Daniel Cathiard has personally selected the oak used to make the barrels in which Château Smith Haut Lafitte is aged.
The château's on-site cooperage produces nearly 450 barrels a year, which corresponds to two thirds of our needs. The remainder is made by two outside cooperages, often with our own oak. We continue to buy barrels from other cooperages to compare the taste differences with our own barrels.
Click for more details— Selecting Oak
We select stave wood 25 mm thick (split along the grain rather than sawed), directly from the region of production. Tests are carried out in order to diversify sources of production and increase the complexity added to the wine by barrel-ageing.
The most recent vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte have been aged in rigorously-selected oak from the Tronçais, Jupille, Bercey, and Loches forests, noted for their fine grain and elegant flavours.
Recent research carried out by the Bordeaux Faculty of Oenology has confirmed the importance of seasoning oak before use.
Oak that has been seasoned by being left outside and exposed to the elements (during which the sap and undesirable tannins are leached, and the wood is naturally air-dried) is always superior to oak that has been through a steam chamber.
The oak we select is set aside and seasoned for 2 years during which time it is regularly sprayed with water, thereby guaranteeing perfect control of humidity and development of the stave wood.
After seasoning, the oak is once again sorted to eliminate any defects that may interfere with barrel assembly (cross-grains, etc.). The staves are then prepared (shaping with an adze, jointing) for assembly. This stage is particularly important from an economic point of view. It is vital to make the most of every cubic meter of stave wood.
The Smith Haut Lafitte's master cooper, Jean Luc Itey, produces barrels on-site. He is thoroughly familiar with the aromatic and aesthetic components of barrels.
The barrels are assembled the traditional way, en rose (with the staves set out in a circle, like the petals of a flower). Jean-Luc toasts the barrel a first time for about an hour to make the oak flexible enough to bend and to form the shape of the barrel. The cooper's art comes through especially during the second toasting, which is slow, long, and reaches the heart of the wood. This transforms the wood aromas to fragrances reminiscent of vanilla, toast, and brioche, but never too strong.
Frequent tastings enable us to fine tune barrel making to each type of wine, as well as to choose the origin of the oak and the optimum degree of toasting (light, medium, or strong).
Our on-site cooperage means we can conduct any number of experiments and react very quickly to adjust the barrel making process.
The cooper's participation in tasting the wine throughout the ageing process proves extremely useful.
After the ends are assembled, the barrels are finished off and given their definitive appearance. They are hand-planed and circled with two chestnut bands bound with osier as per the tradition for “château” barrels in Bordeaux.