Working to the beat: Smith Haut Lafitte’s Master Cooper

Wooden barrels line most of the finest wine cellars around the world – and many are made by hand. Continuing our series taking you behind the scenes in Bordeaux, we ducked into the cooperage at Smith Haut Lafitte to find out more about this special craft
Working to the beat: Smith Haut Lafitte’s Master Cooper

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Walking into the cooperage at Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte is like stepping back in time, filled with the smell of seasoned wood, an open fire and the same tools that barrel-makers have used for centuries. Few estates have the luxury of an in-house cooper. While producers inevitably work closely with the tonnelleries (barrel-making firms, such as François Frères, Stockinger and more), having an artisan on-site, working alongside the winemaking team to craft casks exclusively for your specific terroir is different. “It’s very important for the precision of the wine,” explains Cellar Master Yann Laudeho. 

Florence and Daniel Cathiard, owners of the Pessac-Léognan estate, built a cooperage on-site almost 30 years ago, in 1995, and their current cooper, Yann Dez, has been working here since 2021. The Bordeaux native’s father was a metal worker, and Dez fell into the world of barrel-making entirely by accident – having a friend who was a tonnelier, and a job opening at an opportune moment. Before he knew it, Dez had learnt the trade from some of the best coopers in the country (including one who now makes the barrels at Ch. Margaux), and spending 15 years working under Didier Fesil. Fesil was the Cathiard family’s first cooper back in 1995, who went on to create his own small tonnellerie (Tonnellerie Bordelaise), and has been named the nation’s best “Master Cooper” – twice. Indeed, Fesil is still very involved with the estate, helping choose the wood for barrels and advising on all things oak; and it was Fesil who put Dez forward for the role at Smith Haut Lafitte. 

The finishing touches are applied to a barrel

“There are no books,” Dez says, when I ask about the art of barrel-making. “It’s passed on from tonnelier to tonnelier." The first evidence of coopering as a trade dates back to 900BC – with the craft passed down the generations ever since. “I continue the tradition,” Dez says, clearly with a sense of pride in this ancient, artisanal skill. But with the dust, noise and physical labour involved, tonnellerie schools, Dez tells me, are struggling to recruit young people. It’s common for coopers to have issues with their shoulders and ears (from the non-stop hammering) – and Dez himself has broken an elbow. 

In theory, the process can be mechanised – but Dez is clear on how important it is to work by hand, and not just to preserve this ancient art. “I hear the nose, I feel the resistance,” he says. Each barrel, he explains, is different – with a slightly different number of staves and slightly different shape, all adapted according to the wood he’s working with. Selecting the right wood is key – “reading” it, he explains, looking at the grain to see where potential weaknesses are, understanding where will take the most pressure and placing each stave accordingly, ensuring not a drop can seep from the finished barrel. “It’s a job that is both physical, and at the same time requires thinking,” says Dez – and this combination is much of its allure for him. 

Each barrel is toasted over a small fire, with the time judged purely by smell, feel and sight

Hearing the way Dez talks about barrels is fascinating; for him, they each have a unique personality. When I ask Dez how he knows he’s made a really good barrel, he shrugs: “On le sent.” (“You feel it.”) As you toast a barrel, he tells me, the scent of the smoke changes, releasing different aromas – something I smell as he works in front of me. Knowing when it’s spent the perfect amount of time over the fire is the secret – and it’s about more than just the smell, it’s a gut instinct that he can’t quite explain. 

Smith Haut Lafitte sources oak from a range of forests, and are always trialling wood from different forests, toasts and doing blind tastings, although – after over 25 years – they know what works for their wine, and terroir. Cellar Master Laudeho explains that, for him, Tronçais and Jupilles are the best – “diamonds” that flawlessly complement their site. And that balance is key; the wood works for the wine, not the other way around. 

It seems like a lonely job, I comment, hammering away in his tower – but it’s not something that bothers him. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” he tells me. Having only himself to depend on, and knowing that he can ensure each barrel meets his exacting standards, suits him. Indeed, he doesn’t even settle for standard tools – making most himself, custom-designed to suit the way he works. He talks me through a specific hammer that he made, and how it allows him to work better and more precisely, the wooden handle almost silken from the hours of use, shaped to his hand.  

Tools of the trade: cooper Yann Dez’s hand-made tools

The lone electronic technology to have earned a place here are noise-cancelling headphones and a Marshall speaker. He’s a musician in his spare time, and an additional perk of working alone is that he gets to spend all day listening to music. “All the barrels I’ve made,” he says, “are made with music.” He avoids anything too modern or electronic, favouring old jazz, with some reggae, ska jazz and funk in the mix, depending on the day. While he doesn’t feel the music he listens to influences his coopering, he suspects his mood does – and music is a big part of that. 

Woodwork is much more than a job for Dez. I spy a beautiful chest alongside his speaker, and it’s one that he made. He has a workshop at home too, spending his free time making everything from guitar stands and toys to chandeliers – anything, he says, that isn’t straight, and therefore can’t really be done by a machine. 

It’s amazing watching him work – in the same way as coopers have for centuries – with a natural intuition, ease and precision. There’s definitely something musical to it, a craft that has its own rhythm. He makes around 300 barrels a year, and they may not be soloists – but each one contributes their own note to that year’s symphony. 

Explore all current listings of Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte or read more about Bordeaux 


Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.