Winemakers will debate the choice of French versus American oak wine barrels. It’s an oversimplification to limit the choice between American and French oak when it comes to the wine barrel. Factors such as the skill of the winemaker, vineyard, cooper’s techniques to make the wine barrel, stave (the individual strips of wood which form the barrel) thickness, barrel size, toast level, grain, cellar conditions, and amount of time in the oak wine barrel all influence the character of the wine. When a wine barrel is about 5 years old, it becomes neutral in its influence on the taste of the wine.
Most of the world’s fine wines are aged in wooden wine casks or wine barrels as opposed to stainless steel tanks. Oak wine barrels enhance flavor, aroma and complexity of the wine through extraction of substances from the wood into the wine. Oak wine barrels allow air (oxygen) to make contact with the wine resulting in a slow oxidation process.
Historically, wood type was a question of tradition, wine variety, economics, and personal taste. Redwood was commonly used in the construction of puncheons or uprights many times larger than the traditional 60-gallon oak barrel. However, redwood is no longer used, being too rigid to bend the staves and gives a yellow tint to the wine. Chestnut, high in tannin, is too porous and needs paraffin coating to prevent excessive evaporation wine loss. Oak is used almost exclusively in barrel ageing of fine wines because of its strength, workability and lack of undesirable flavor or color extractives. Oak’s tight grain permits a gradual extraction of wood flavors. Oak is resilient, enabling staves to be bent without breaking, unlike hardwoods like apple or cherry, and has a neutral wood smell. Oak is high in tannin, an important flavor component in proper amounts that allows red wines to age by gobbling up oxygen, which would otherwise spoil the wine.
French versus American Oak
The majority of winemakers insist on French oak. However, a growing minority uses an American white oak species, grown in Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Oregon, and Ohio, for the crafting of wine barrels. It is preferred over red and black oak because of the high tannin content, tighter grain minimizing wine evaporation, and resistance to shrinkage preventing wine leakage after the wine is removed from a newly-filled barrel.
Common forests in France harvesting French white oak for wine barrel production are Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers, planted in the days of Napoleon for shipbuilding. Each forest produces oak that imparts slightly different nuances of flavor to the wine. Each forest produces slightly different densities of wood determining the rate of extraction of these flavors. Winemakers typically use a blend of wine barrels from different forests to take advantage of the unique characteristics of each.
This notion of regional character does not exist with American oak. The character of oak can vary within a forest due to growth conditions and age. Winemakers using American oak are more concerned with the reputation of the cooper than exactly which state the oak was grown in. A cooper’s reputation is established on the basis of his ability to make a uniform product from year to year. While winemakers expect variation in grape quality from vintage to vintage, consistency in new wine barrels purchased from one year to the next is critical.
As wineries seek to lower production costs, demand for American oak has increased dramatically. More winemakers have substituted American oak wine barrels costing about $400 each for French oak wine barrels costing over $1,000 or more per barrel. This trend has prompted renewed scrutiny of the differences between American and French oak. While both American and French oak contribute tannin and aroma, French oak contains more tannins and flavor components with less “oaky” flavor and smell than American oak. American oak has a more aggressive mouth feel and immediately apparent aroma. American oak contains more vanillin (vanilla aroma) and more odorous compounds.
Some have thought American oak’s somewhat harsh, raw character ruled out its use for white wine and made it desirable for aging powerful, robust red wines such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. But coopers successfully reduced the undesirable characteristics of American oak by applying traditional French production techniques. Stave wood is stacked outside to air-dry, instead of kiln or oven drying, for a minimum of 18 months. The wood is exposed to rain and drying leaching out excessive harshness while retaining desirable vanillin components, 70% of which is lost during artificial drying. In the past, American oak wine barrels were flash-fired, producing a heavy char suitable for ageing bourbon. Toasting of the barrels are done more slowly over lower heat, allowing a deeper flame penetration and caramelization of the wood sugars.
When it comes to wine barrels, all winemakers look for something different. If you had five winemakers that tasted the results, you would get five different responses. There is no right or wrong choice of wine barrel.
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