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Delhi Wine Club
Morat : Story of Royal Oak Tree in France

Posted: Monday, 07 May 2012 14:15

Morat: Story of Royal Oak Tree in France

An oak tree born in 1661 in the French forest of Tronçais and known as Morat oak tree was auctioned in 2005 after around 350 years of growth and the oak used by the family cooperage Tonnellerie Sylvain to make oak barrels which were sold to estates like Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Château Angelus, Château Cheval Blanc and Marchesi de Frescobaldi, making this an interesting story, writes John Salvi MW.

As an auction this was something totally unique and at the same time utterly fascinating. It brought history to life in front of our eyes. It is the story of an oak tree, bought by Jean-Luc Sylvain for his family cooperage Tonnellerie Sylvain, made into wine barrels and sold by auction at the Regent Hotel, in Bordeaux.  He fell in love with this particular tree while walking with his father, in his youth, in the forest of Tronçais.

Story of an Oak Tree

The singular and outstanding oak tree that forms the backbone of my story was born in 1661, in the heart of the forest of Tronçais, one of France’s most famous oak forests in the Allier. It is a mute witness to the glorious history of French silviculture. It can, without any exaggeration, be termed a “tree of Royal Blood”.

Jean-Luc Sylvain imagined the unimaginable. He proposed to his customers to age and mature their Grands Crus wines in 350 year old barrels. For that he did not hesitate to acquire the Morat oak tree, pride of the forest of Tronçais and reputed for its vigour and the quality of its wood-a true diamond in its natural state that Tonnellerie Sylvain cut and shaped to give birth to some 60 fine oak barrels.

In 1669, by a decree of Louis XIV, King of France, the Sun King, Colbert (1619-1683) was ordered to organise the growing of oak trees in order to provide prime oak for France to build a powerful fleet of conquering ships for its navy. Colbert was the “Controller General of Finance”. He created the “Futaie Colbert”, the historical heart of the Royal Forest of Tronçais, where the best oaks were to be found at that time. He would later order 276 ships to be built from those oaks. He chose the most outstanding specimens that he could find to be the “reproducers” in the King’s forest.

Among these was a fine, young oak, then just 8 years old, which was soon found to be a magnificent “seeder” and became rapidly known as the OAK OF MORAT. When, 30 years later, Colbert had many trees in the forest felled it was spared due to these outstanding reproductive qualities. It was carefully nurtured and preserved by the agents of the “Eaux et Forets” and its acorns gave birth to thousands of magnificent trees during the succeeding centuries.

Its outstanding vigour and the superb quality of its wood encouraged the forestry controllers to preserve it as long as possible, as had their predecessors, and to use to the full its generous nature and its perfect acorns. Its offspring enjoyed rectitude of trunk, straightness, hardness, height and longevity. Over the ages it gradually became both an icon and an historical symbol.

Felling of Oak Morat

The oak of MORAT reached an age of almost 350 years, a height of 39 metres and a diameter round its trunk of 1.28 metres at a height of 1.30 metres above the ground. Finally, in 2004, it was found to have developed a physiological weakness and the decision was taken to fell it. It was put up for auction by the Office Nationale des Forets (ONF) and bought by Sylvain, on 18th October 2005, for 37,790 Euros.

It was felled on 20th January 2006 and weighed 60 tons. It provided 19 cubic metres of wood of which 12 could be used for barrels. Carried by an immense, 15-metres-long transporter, it arrived at the cooperage on 15th February. It was cut up and transformed into “douelles” or “staves” in the presence of such luminary wine estates as Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Château Angelus, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Loudenne, Marchesi de Frescobaldi, Adoro Wines of South Africa, Bodega Capafons of Spain and Cliff Lede Vineyard in Yountville in Napa Valley, California.

Making of Barrels

The trunk was cut into one metre lengths and then split into quarters by wedge and hammer. Following the grain of the wood, the founder then cut each quarter into wedges, shaved off the bark and formed the staves. From then on, until 2008, these staves underwent natural drying outdoors under the rain, the wind and the sun. Finally, in March-April 2008, the staves were made into 60 Bordeaux barrels of 225 litre capacity. This is almost twice as many as any normal oak tree will provide; one Bordeaux barrel requires approximately 2 cubic metres of oak. Incidentally, the barrel was invented by the Gauls around 700 BC.

Artistry and Morat Collection 2009

Ten artists were asked by Tonnellerie Sylvain to create works of art on one head of ten different barrels and these were named the “MORAT COLLECTION 2009”. The artists were given free rein to use their imagination as long as they did not in any way change or damage the properties of the barrels.

Some painted, some worked with glass, some with porcelain, some with stainless steel. Some wrote histories on the barrel, some painted vineyards, some sculpted. The variety was impressive and Jean-Luc Sylvain decided to sell these by auction and to present the entire proceeds to the “Association La Voix de l’Enfant” or “Association for the Voice of a Child”, of which the spokeswoman is Carole Bouquet who was present at the auction. Her presence, of course, was a huge attraction and she gave a short, charming and simple speech and appeal for charity saying “to protect the rights of children today is the best way to protect the rights of humanity tomorrow”.

La Voix de L’Enfant is a Federative, charitable Association, created 20th July 1981 and today implanted in 102 countries. The Federation groups together no less than 76 separate Associations. Its purpose and philosophy is “to listen to and defend all children in distress wherever or whatever they may be” and “to defend the dignity and integrity of all children and adolescents”.

This singular auction quickly aroused both the curiosity and the desire of many of the owners of the great châteaux. Tonnellerie Sylvain had originally thought that these collector items would be of interest to owners and producers from the “New World” as well as “Old Europe”. However, since they were Bordeaux barrels it was chiefly the owners of the Classed Growth châteaux who came to the auction and fought each other for the honour of ownership.

They would be able to create special cuvées whose wine would age in, and share 350 years of history. For a fine wine grower such a tree has exceptionally dense and fine grain, which gives to the wine an unequalled finesse of flavours and bouquets as well as delicate tones of vanilla. Stunningly successful, and attended by this elite and select audience of Château owners and well known personalities in the world of wine, the auction was conducted by the best known Bordeaux auctioneer  Maître Jean Dit Cazaux, using an ivory hammer with a whalebone handle. Cazaux has handled all the auctions of rare and fine wines, together with Christies, over the past many years.

The Top Ten Barrels

The ten barrels between them fetched a total sum of 39,200 Euros. Nearly all were bought by Bordeaux proprietors of great Châteaux.

No.1 Christian MAAS Château ANGELUS
No.2    Antonio RICO    Château PHELAN-SEGUR
No.3     Pascal BLANCHARD Château LALAUDEY
No.5 and No.6  Thomas ANTONIETTI Château PAVIE
No.7 Bun THAN HUYNH   Château CLINET 
No.9    Christian MAAS   Château DAUZAC
No.10    Serge BELLOCHE Château PAVIE

I personally talked to Bun Than Huynh, one of the artists and a glass specialist who had recorded the history of the tree engraved on a sheet of unbreakable, transparent glass, which formed one of the heads of his barrel.

Whatever one’s opinion may be of Colbert and his king, Louis XIV, these barrels are a living memory of them, stemming from their desire to make great ships and an all-conquering French Naval Fleet by planting a Royal Forest of oak trees to produce the finest possible oak. Were they to come back to life they would be utterly astonished to learn that the wood from their trees is still in use today?     This auction brought history to life with intense vividness and the barrels from the MORAT oak tree will hopefully become collectors pieces used to make great wine for perhaps another 350 years!  As Jean-Luc Sylvain so poetically said “The wine in these barrels can share 350 years of history”!

Tonnellerie Sylvain

As this entire idea and its fulfilment was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Sylvain it would be unthinkable and unappreciative not to pen a few words about his family cooperage. His father, Gérard, founded a barrel repair centre, in 1957, in the centre of Libourne. Jean-Luc joined his father, in 1980, bringing with him his engineering skills. The repair centre became a fully-fledged cooperage, producing high quality barrels, and in 1984 Jean-Luc founded the SARL Tonnellerie Sylvain. The 1980s offered new perspectives and new markets.

The company grew and its production developed. In 1991 the company moved to larger premises at Saint Denis de Pile, close to Saint Emilion. Jean-Luc’s concern with traceability and artisanal workmanship was recognised by his fellow coopers and, in 1996, he was awarded the title of “Artisan of the year” and, in 2003, that of “Best Entrepreneur of South-West France”.

Jean-Luc incorporated an oak-ageing facility into the establishment, where the very finest oak could be brought to optimum condition before being transformed into barrels. Today he employs some 50 persons producing some 33,000 barrels per year with a daily production of around 120 and sells 70% of this production on the international market. They have developed their sales and their reputation in the Southern hemisphere (South Africa, Australia, Chile, Argentina etc.) as well as all the wine producing countries of the Northern hemisphere.

The New Oak Collection

Jean-Luc is a leading authority on the complex, and still only partially understood, science of the complex chemical exchanges between wine and oak.He fully intends to renew this great adventure with new collections created by other artists from other famous trees. He has acquired the Oak of Bangor and the Oak of Aberdeen, two famous trees from the same Tronçais forest, the barrels from which will be auctioned when they have been created and the artists chosen have created their masterpieces.

John Salvi Master of Wine

John Salvi is one of the most senior Master of Wines-in twenties, both in the serial number at IMW and pshychological age. He first appeared for his MW in 1966 but admits he was drunk when he sat in the exams He passed eventually in 1970. He has had a colourful personality-past and present.He has spent his whole life devoted to wine and is as passionate about it now at 75 as when he drank his first bottle of dÝquem aged 8- except now he carries his personal spittoon as he feels he has already finished his quota of wine drinking as advised by Bacchus. He lives in Margaux with his charming South African wife Nellie, and hob nobs with the big guns of Top Growths of Bordeaux. We are proud that he writes often for delWine as a guest writer.


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