A clutch of St Emilion producers are eagerly awaiting the public's response to a radical new barrel developed by one of Bordeaux's biggest coopers.

Tonnellerie Boutes – a major cooperage supplying barrels to the top names in Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, Napa and elsewhere – is experimenting with a new barrel it calls ‘Grande Reserve’.

Around 12 St Emilion Grand Crus have put part of their 2000 vintage into the new barrels, and they will be bottling the wine in two or three months’ time.

How the barrel differs remains a secret. ‘It is a concept, but it is very different to the classic barrel,’ Boutes commerical director Julien Segura said.

‘Normally producers want the barrel to give an aromatic style to the wine, but the Grande Reserve is toasted in a different way which respects the fruit and makes an altogether softer and smoother wine.’

Every aspect of cooperage is controlled and monitored, from the choice of forest and the length of time the newly-cut oak is weathered, to the various methods a cooper will use to soften the natural tannins in the oak.

The toasting process, which involves searing the inside of the barrel over an oak-fed brazier, imparts flavours to the wine. It is an exact science, with temperature strictly controlled by computer.

‘From this barrel you get very sweet oak, volume and length,’ the company’s literature says. ‘During ageing the texture of the wines changes dramatically, helping them to lose their aggressiveness and bitterness. There is no wood sensation or toasted aromas as you can get very often from a traditional barrel – simply sensations of very complex wines showing ideal expressions of their terroir.’

Segura will say little about Grande Reserve, except that the barrel is likely to have a marked impact on the taste of the wine. Neither will he divulge the names of the chateaux that have bought the barrels.

‘The final test will be for the consumer,’ he said. ‘It will be very different.’

Written by Adam Lechmere26 March 2002