Forest of Tronçais
The Forest of Tronçais (Forêt de Tronçais) is a French national forest, a forêt domaniale, comprising 10,600 hectares in the Allier, managed by the Office national des forêts. Its oaks, planted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of Louis XIV to supply the French navy, constitute one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe.
The principal trees are sessile oak (Quercus petraea) (73%), whose ancient name in French, tronce, gave its name to the district, with beech (Fagus sylvatica) (9%) and pedunculate oak (Q. robur) (8%). There are also Carpinus and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), which is planted in the poorest soils. Trees are harvested on a rotation averaging 250 years.
Within the forest 108 Roman habitations that have been discovered, most during recent decades, show that the land was cleared and intensively cultivated under the Roman Empire; the resulting pocket of increased biodiversity, initiated by Roman manuring and fertilizing practices, has remained self-sustaining over two millennia and can be detected today. The forest, therefore, is not a relic of the primeval forest that once covered most of France, but was organized by Colbert in 1670, with forethought for the requirements of the French navy two hundred years hence, the present futaie Colbert, now reduced to a few hectares. Beeches and larches were interplanted with the oaks to encourage them to grow with straight tall masts free of knots. By the time the trees were fully mature, the navy was rapidly switching from sail to steam. The forest was diminished by the creation in 1788 of iron forges fed by charcoal from the forest, and by urgent cutting during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. The forest regenerated during the 19th century.
The oaks of Tronçais, representing some 80% of production, are prized for the barrels coopered for cognac and the great wines of Bordeaux. Amongst the more famous coopers using the oaks of Tronçais are Dominique Laurent who makes what are widely regarded as some of the world's finest barrels. These have been nicknamed "magic casks", by renowned French wine taster Michel Bettane. Laurent goes into the Tronçais forest to select the trees (typically around 300 years of age) and transports them back to the cooperage himself, thus guaranteeing provenance. He only uses the top section of the trunk, the staves are split by hand and air dried for 52 months. The staves are much thicker, due to their hand splitting, compared with commercial barrels, (40-45mm as opposed to 25-30mm approx). The barrels were developed for Dominique Laurent, and Tardieu Laurent's top cuvees but a few of the barrels are sold to (only) the best French and international producers including DRC, Zind Humbrecht, Clos Mogador, Pingus and Beau Fréres from Robert Parker Jr. in Oregon. A limited number of barrels make it to Australia where they are used by the boutique winemaker Torbreck for the making of Australia's most expensive (and 100 point rated) Shiraz - "the Laird".
- A forêt domaniale is a category corresponding to the French State's inalienable domaine, as heir to the monarchy, under a judicial regime distinct from the national patrimoine and from private property, defined by a royal edict issued from Moulins in 1566. (French Wikipedia: Forêt domaniale).
- Satellite map
- Etienne Dambrine et al., in Ecology (June 2007); report: "How Roman farmers left their mark on nature".
- Allier Tourisme: The Tronçais Forest
- The forges established by Nicolas Rambourg remained in use until 1932.
- (French) Forest of Tronçais on the website of the Office national des forêts