This Education Series is going consist of 3 parts. Today we will focus on the types of oak that are used in barrel making, where they come from, and what makes them different. Next Tuesday, in part 2 we will talk about cooperage, the process by which oak barrels are made. Then the following Tuesday, part 3 will consist of the role that oak plays in the wine making process.
So before we talk about where the oak for oak barrels comes from, let’s define what types of oak are used for wine barrels. Almost all wine barrels are made from white oak due to its non porous nature and ability to create a water (or wine) tight seal. Getting a little bit technical here, the white oak used for wine barrels are all from the Quercus species of oak, 2 are European and 1 is American.
When you walk into a tasting room, 9 times out of 10 the winemaker or person doing the tasting will tell you “this was aged in French Oak or American Oak” or sometimes both. At least this is true for most wineries here in the United States. Although these are the most common, oak for wine barrels can be harvested in many other regions in Europe. In fact, in Piedmont, Italy where Megan and I were this summer, the preferred choice for aging the Nebbiolo grape is Slovenian oak.
To date there has been no general consensus on which forests in the United States provide the best American Oak for barrel making. Currently, Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the lead, while small amounts of barrels, mostly on an experimental basis, are also coming out of Oregon. Generally oak from forests in the Southern US are considered too sappy and unsuitable for barrel use.
In France it is a bit more complicated – There are 6 main forests that French Oak is produced from, though these by no means comprise the complete list. These six are found mainly in Northern France: Western Loire and Sarthe, Limousin, Nievre and Allier, Vosges, Jura and Bourgogne, and Argonne. Each forest provides oak that has distinct characteristics, for instance the Nievre and Allier forests are known for wood that is consistently tight grained, and thus more prized with winemakers.
So besides the price tag, $650 for American oak barrels and $850 for French barrels on average, what is the difference between the two most popular oaks, French and American? The answer is the flavor. American oak is much stronger in its flavor or “oakiness” and thus the wines that are put into it need to be stronger (more full bodied) wines. American oak is typically used in Spain, Australia and North and South America. Wines from these regions, such as Rioja, Shiraz and warm climate “BIG” Cabernet Sauvignons are typically put into American oak.
French oak is by far the gold standard when it comes to barrels made for wine production. French oak is much softer, and usually tighter grained, imparting less tannins into the unknowing wine. Barrels from certain forests that are renowned for their superior French oak can command prices well over $1000 a piece.
This was just a primer into where oak for oak barrels comes from. If you would like any more info on oak, shoot me an email, I will be happy to oblige.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of …. Gather ‘round the Oak Barrel.
Reference: Oxford Companion to wine 3rd edition.