Q&A with Nicolas Mahler-Besse, CEO of Seguin-Moreau Cooperage, France
Seguin-Moreau is one of the premier cooperages in the world. Started as two different cooperages in the 1800s, they merged in 1972 to become a barrel powerhouse. Nicolas Mahler-Besse assumed the position of CEO of Seguin Moreau in 2011 and had worked for the last 14 years in the cooperage business for Radoux. Seguin-Moreau currently has more that 4,500 clients in 35 countries, making their domination of the cooperage business clearly evident
With three cooperages in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa, do you foresee the need for other cooperages in emerging wine regions, and where might those be?
For the moment there is no plan to build new cooperages as we are already in the main wine locations, we’ll see how we grow then determine business in other areas.
Is the robur oak superior to the peduncle oak for wine?
The Sessiliflora oak is much better than the Peduncle for wine, as the Peduncle oak is only used for Cognac or Brandy. Peduncle is a different species of oak and it has more tannins and less aromas than the Sessiliflora oak.
How do you respond to critics who claim that using oak barrels is not a long-term sustainable farming process?
It is incorrect. The L'Office National des Forêts (ONF) the French organization of forestry is managing all the forests in France and allows us to keep only the trees that have the age to be cut. If we don’t cut them they will eventually die, fall and break other trees. Also 90% of the money used to buy oak is used by this same organization to maintain the level and quality of the forests in order to make sure that future generation will still have oak to make barrels.
What is the percentage of cost that a new barrel actually affects a bottle of wine?
A barrel costs around 800 Euros as an average for French Oak and you can have 300 bottles in a barrel. Usually a barrel is used for 3 years, so the calculation is less than one euro per bottle to age the wine in good quality oak.
You have over 4,500 customers in 35 countries. With that kind of global presence, how do you maintain the highest level of production and quality for a product which can require long transit times?
We are present in every country as being the Number 1 cooperage in the world so we have technical advisors and agents everywhere who can be in direct contact with all our customers. 80% of our production goes outside France, therefore we are used to sending barrels everywhere by truck or container where they arrive safely and on time.
What, in your opinion, is the least understood component of cooperage to the average wine consumer?
A barrel can be completely adapted to the wine and the goal of the winemaker. With the same base wine depending of the type of oak or toasting we can completely change the wine. Most of our job is to taste the wine, discuss with the winemaker in order to adapt the right barrel to the right wine and the objective of the winemaker. Globally a barrel will bring to the wine some oak aromas, some structure from the tannins of the oak, but also soften the rough tannins of the wine. Oak can also help fix the color of red wine, and with the micro oxygenation will help with wine maturity.
With a growing preponderance for un-oaked Chardonnay’s and even some red wines to a lesser degree, do you see a time when there is a global palate for less oak used in wine?
I think there is a trend on that nowadays, but there is still a big future for barrels, as it brings up the quality of the wine. Also with new techniques that we have now we are able to have less impact in term of aromatics on the wine but that the wine will still benefit of all the other good components of the barrels. Maybe in the past the percentage of new oak was a bit high, and our knowledge of toasting less precise, but now we are able to fine tune a barrel that in the wine you can’t really tell it has been aged in oak but the quality has really improved, a bit like a suit that fits perfectly and almost you can’t see it.
What prompted you to pursue a career in the wine industry? If not wine, what do you think you would be doing right now?
My family has been involved in the wine business in Bordeaux for more than three generations so I think if I don’t have to change from the barrel business I will continue in the wine industry. But I’m really enjoying this business as it allows me to have a direct contact with a lot of winemakers all around the world and the top Chateaux!
Certainly in many American wines, oak is used, perhaps in an uneducated fashion, to mask flaws in wine. At its best, what does oak impart to wine that other wood or additives cannot?
It is true that oak can mask some weakness of some wines, but its best use is to really raise the wine as a cradle for a baby. It brings a certain level of oak aromatics from the toasting with a wide range of different flavors, brings some structure or softens some tannins, fix the color, and raise a wine that can be a bit rough at the beginning to an elegant wine.
With the rise of other oak producing regions (Russia, Hungary, even Mid-America), do these regions pose any threat to French oak, which is widely regarded at the premier oak for wine?
No. American oak is different species that brings out completely different flavors and tannins. It is interesting in a blend or for specific objective, but still the French Oak by its composition will stay different from the other species, and so far we’ve not found anything that brings the same level of quality as a good wine aged in a good French Oak barrel.
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