A Very Voluminous Vat

In Rousillon, almost within sight of the Mediterranean Sea and only a few kilometres from the Pyrenees and the Franco-Spanish border, lies the little French town of Thuir, which is the production centre of Byrrh, a wine-based "tonic" aperitif flavoured with various spices, but most notably quinine (in fact it was initially advertised in the 19th century as having medicinal properties until the pharmacists of Montpellier threatened court action). In its 1930s heyday, the firm’s headquarters there contained the largest cave in the world at the time: 75 oak vats with a capacity of 15 million litres, sending out an astonishing 35 million bottles a year. It was during this heady period that the idea was conceived to construct the world’s largest oak vat.

Vintage advertisements for Byrrh speak for themselves...

In a sense, however, the vat’s history started long before in the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when the royal forests were reformed and replanted, at the time largely for naval purposes, under the two Jean-Baptiste Colberts, father and son. It was in one of these, the Forest of Jupilles, part of the larger Forest of Bercé,* that suitable timber was finally located and purchased. Situated in the department of Sarthe (departmental capital Le Mans), this forest also contains France’s tallest oak at 50 metres. The staves, 16 cm thick at their bases, were

The world's biggest oak vat (IOS member Anke Mattern from Germany gives scale).

cut during the period 1938/9. However, History’s heavy hand hindered the process of drying to shape, as some of the staves, whilst concealed during the German occupation of France, deteriorated too much to use. Thus, when the vat was finally constructed between 1946 and 1949 at specialist barrel-makers Ets. Adolphe Fruhinsholz in the city of Nancy in Lorraine (not far from the German border and thus almost the other side of France from its birthplace in Sarthe), its final capacity was 1,000,200 litres instead of the planned 1,200,000 litres. But still over a million litres! The whole edifice then had to be broken down and transported again across France, this time southwest to its final resting place in Thuir, where it was at last commissioned in February 1950.

One can see the champion vat on a guided visit, which commences in a vast dimly lit space which can best be described as a temple to cooperage; a temple peopled with row upon row of megalithic 200,000 litre oak vats, any of which to my mind could have been the world’s largest. But, at the far end, one can sense rather than see that there is an inner sanctum, where finally (before one is ejected into the tasting room!) one stands before the King of Barrels. Ten metres tall, with a diameter of 12 metres, it already weighs 100 tons when empty, with 

Because of the potential movement in such a large oak structure, conventional barrel hoops are replaced with adjustable bands.

17 tons of adjustable metal bands which hold it together. Full, its massive 1,100 tons tons is equal to two twin-deck Airbus A380 ‘super Jumbos’ at maximum take-off weight.

Times and tastes change, and Byrrh never regained its pre-war popularity, so in 1961 the owning family decided to sell to Dubonnet-Cinzano, which, in the modern way of things, is now part of the Pernod-Ricard empire. The factory, however, continues to produce smaller quantities of Byrrh in addition to Dubonnet, Cinzano and other drinks. Under this financial umbrella, the world’s biggest oak vat still has a future to look forward to.

 


* The Forest of Bercé was included in the Pre-Conference Tour prior to the 7th IOS Conference in Bordeaux. See International Oaks No. 24, and Oak News & Notes Vol 17 No. 1.