Wine to 5: Fabien Gauthier, Cooper at Gauthier Frères

Fabien Gauthier

Fabien Gauthier owns Gauthier Fre?res, a stave mill and cooperage in Cher, Central Loire, with his brother Guillaume, the third generation of their family dedicated to merranderie. Known for their passion and precision, they select wood and Guillaume manufactures the staves that Fabien then works into barrels. Fabien’s sought-after barrels are used by producers all over the world.  

How did you get here?

My father was a merrandier (‘stave miller’) and my brother had joined him at the mill. In the early 2000s, some coopers in France were establishing their own mills to control the whole production process. My father had the idea of doing the same and invited me to join the two of them in 2003 to set up our own tonnellerie (‘cooperage’). Having grown up surrounded by wood, the project immediately appealed to me. It allowed me to work in the forest, where we select our oak trees, to manufacture the staves alongside my brother, craft the barrels and sell them myself – a holistic approach, from forest to winemaker. My journey is also, therefore, a story of family and tradition.

What’s the best thing about your work?

The opportunity to train new coopers, and working with winemakers. Every year, I employ someone, without prior experience or training, whom I teach myself. It allows me to pass on our particular way of doing things, very artisanal and with utmost attention to detail. And the interaction with winemakers – tasting together, selecting staves, deciding on toasting levels – also gives me great pleasure. This exchange is what allows us to make ‘haute couture’: barrels tailored to their specific demands and wines.

And the worst?

All the paperwork and admin. French bureaucracy! All the rest, even if time-consuming and effortful, gives me great satisfaction.

Is there a special moment or achievement you recall fondly?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve shared many special moments with my 200 customers all over the world. But the opportunity to work with Domaine Coche-Dury in Meursault is particularly meaningful. Before we had our tonnellerie, they bought wood from my father, which they sent to other coopers. When I started, they became one of my first clients. That vote of confidence, from a renowned producer, was very motivating and reassuring. It also helped me to expand my client base, especially abroad. Above all, the fact that they were happy with the barrels I produced meant that I was on the right path.

And your greatest mistake?

Not investing in good machinery from the beginning. I spent years doing literally everything by hand. It takes a toll… You might not feel it when you’re young but it really wears you down. Had I been aware, I would have invested more, sooner. It has had a big impact on my physical well-being – my body is ‘spent’.

Are you very critical of wines fermented/aged in your barrels?

Definitely. I try to be objective, and when I notice that the wood influence does not please me I take note to make corrections. I try to keep a very critical mind, always learning. In the instances where I feel that it’s something to do with the winemaking, I need to be very diplomatic… In more problematic vintages, perhaps with higher volumes but less substance, the barrel cannot perform magic. You need enough depth and structure to integrate the wood.

What do you enjoy drinking at home?

I am a big Burgundy fan. I love Pinot Noir – also from the Central Loire – and Chardonnay. You could say that I’ve been ‘aged in Pinot Noir’! And I love our Sauvignon Blancs. So I’m just an ordinary Frenchman really. I love the wines from my own region and the one just next to it – the wines that shaped my taste and palate.

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