Words from Armagnac: Pièce
Piece of theatre, piece of cake or even pièce de résistance, the pièce we are talking about however, is fashioned specially in wood for ageing Armagnac! Whether it is a barrel, tun or cask, it is in this that the eau-de-vie combines with the wood and takes on the aromatic elements that will mark its memory. However, before the magic can happen in these 400 litre containers, the selection, transformation and blend of wood are crucial stages that necessitate meticulous procedures by the artisan cooper.
No need to look very far, as within sight of the vines, the local oaks are the preferred choice for ageing Armagnac, even though the Limousin, Vosges and Allier offer equally lovely raw materials. The story of the Gascon nectar takes root in these trees that are sometimes as old as a hundred years, and begins well before entering the barrel.
After this rigorous selection, the cooper splits the oak logs to take out the planks that are called merrains (staves) that come from the most noble part of the trunk. For several months, or several years, the stave wood is left outside in the fresh air. Whipped by winds, soaked by the rain and heated by the sun, they are seasoned by nature and its perfumes, before being sculpted into staves; about thirty are necessary to make a pièce. In his workshop, the cooper fashions them in the shape of a flower with the strength of the iron rings and bends the spine over the flames. The heat makes them supple and little by little the ends join.
Once its shape has been formed, all that is needed is to forge its character and define its profile. The cooper works therefore alongside the cellar master who will tell him the profile and the aromatic intensity that he wants to give his eaux-de-vie. Every barrel is hence personalised by the force of the fire that grills the wood for a longer or shorter time according to the desired effect. Nothing is left to chance and this stage of the toasting is essential as it is that that will define the exchanges between the wood and the eau-de-vie.
To ensure that no perfumes or aromas escape, the cooper closes the pièce and makes sure that it is watertight to allow optimal oxidation; the wood can then receive the eau-de-vie. The first act of a successful marriage.