Gazeteer of France’s great oak woods – Tronçais, a showcase for French oak – Part 219 November 2019
[Second part of the news published on Tuesday 12th November 2019]
The sessile is the Rolls-Royce of oaks and France is the foremost producer in the world. The richness of the Atlantic forest, and particularly Tronçais, stems from the even growth of the trees, and in spite of the prevalence of oak, from their diversity. “Look, here, in one square meter of what looks like a jumble of plants there are about fifteen oaks 20 cm high (8 in.) hidden among the brambles and the holly, the hornbeam and the beech,” Loïc Nicolas points out as we walk through a plot that has not yet been entirely cleared. “The brambles will later have to be pulled up, but at first we keep a layer of hornbeam and beech to nurse the young oaks.”
Farther west at the Rond de Richebourg, reminiscent of the grand crus of the Côte de Nuits, the forester, whose green eyes match his ONF uniform, stops to admire the wood of Buffévent. “Around 1800 this was just a field of acorns, the oaks are now more than a hundred years old and surrounded by fifty-year-old beeches, whose branches support the smooth trunks of the oaks. They prevent the growth of suckers and burl, those undesirable little branches along the trunk.” Further on stands the Perron oak, a 210-year-old powerhouse some 45 meters (150 feet) tall, just one of forty remarkable trees in the forest. Another 14-hectare (34.6 acre) plot of venerable trees, the Colbert Grove, perpetuates the great man’s memory and acts as a kind of tree archive.
Older specimens are preserved at a rate of three per hectare, not only through respect, but to ensure biological continuity. ONF forests even keep some dead trees, to the delight of insects and birds. Tronçais has also created the reserve of Nantigny (100 ha; 250 a.), where all commercial activity is prohibited. Haulage is monitored and even suspended in rainy weather. Cyclists and horse-riders have the use of the forest lanes but they are prohibited to cars. Two hunts help ensure a balanced population of game, as well as financing the forest to the tune of 50,000 euros a year each. The main way of controlling numbers of the 1,300 hart, hinds, and fawns that inhabit Tronçais, not counting the roe deer and wild boar, is, however, organized shooting.
The main resource is the wood itself, whose sales amounted to six million euros in 2017. Successive waves of improvement cutting have led to oak of exceptional quality and to batches worth almost 1000 euros a cubic meter. “Prices rise because demand is keen,” notes Philippe Comis who runs the stavemill of Chêne Bois at Cérilly, at the forest’s edge. Tronçais has a head start over all other forests in France, because conversion to even-aged management began earlier here. Though the forest has earned a legitimate aura of superiority from this advance, it has led to certain excesses. “About fifteen years ago, sawlogs would be brought in from outside, sent through us and stamped with the Tronçais quality assurance mark,” adds Philippe Comis, “but today everything is as it should be, and the traceability is perfect.” Perhaps Tronçais quality will one day be recognized as an AOC, it just needs to be established and certified.
A plan to have Tronçais listed as a UNESCO world heritage site once hovered over the crown of these oaks but, since that would have restricted use of the forest, the idea was quickly shelved. On the other hand, in May 2018 Tronçais did receive the ONF’s exceptional forest label. An accolade amply deserved, as much for its impressive biodiversity as its fine-grained stavewood which combines low levels of tannin and aromatic richness. In the world of barrel-making, the oaks of Tronçais are less a forest than a myth, to the degree that some are of the wrong-headed opinion that good barrels come from here and nowhere else. It would be more correct to speak of the oaks of the Allier and the hedgerows of the Bourbonnais (see Abbayes).
Find out the entire gazeteer of France’s great oak woods, and much more, in The oak in majesty, from forest to wine written by Sylvain Charlois and Thierry Dussard.