The most common oak used (almost exclusively) in the making of wine is wood from the oak tree. Whether from North America or Europe, almost all wine barrels are made from the hardwood oak. In America, the White Oak is the wood of choice for making wine barrels. Why?
The simple answer is the binding of the grains in the oak is tighter than most other trees and in the matter of the White Oak (technically quercus alba), the flavors given off by the wood compliment wine better than any other. Commonly you’ll hear that a new barrel gives off a spicy vanilla flavor to the wine, which is like seasoning the wine. Given its tight grain structure and density, the White Oak’s wood is essentially resistant to rot, making it a great product for wine barrels and furniture use in or out of a home or business.
Where they come from
First off, anyone who says they know exactly how many barrels are sold and where they come from is either not telling the truth or it’s an estimated guess. Regardless, French oak makes up nearly two-thirds of all wine barrels produced. North American oak (mostly from the United States) makes up nearly one-third of wine barrel production worldwide. Note: a small percentage of oak comes from Eastern Europe.
The main difference between the oaks of Europe and the United States is the tightness of the grains. French are tighter and thereby don’t offer quite as much flavor as American. That’s not necessarily a good or bad distinction between the two, but actually offers a winemaker a choice of what he wants the barrel to impart with the wine. Though French oak have higher tannins than American, the still high tannin content influences aromas and flavors. In addition, the bark is used for medicinal purposes such as treating inflammation along with a variety of ailments.
Usually found in lower elevations, the slow-developing White Oak generally grows throughout the eastern half of the United States and is the country’s national tree. Not to be confused with its close cousins the Bur Oak or Swamp White Oak, which maybe is a bit darker, the bark of a white oak is an ashen color. A popular food for an assortment of birds and mammals, their rather large acorns mature quickly compared to most other oaks (within six months) and the tree is not evergreen but deciduous, meaning it loses it leaves every year. There is an exception to losing it leaves and that’s the fact younger White Oaks can hold onto their leaves through winter, offering additional protection for many different types of birds.
It’s not unusual for a cooperage (where they make barrels) to use the oak from diverse areas of the country but in any case the Midwest is the most popular region for producing wine barrel quality trees. The state of Missouri is probably the most common producer of White Oak used in American wine barrel making. By the way, the central part of France is where a majority of wine barrel wood comes from with the government controlling nearly all those forests.
Big and strong
With dark green leaves that turn a dark reddish hue in the fall, White Oaks grow almost as wide as they grow tall and with its lighter than normal bark, they are regal in the way they stand out. When the hardwood is cut to make barrels, the wood is light in color, but turns a pale yellow when dried. The hardwood from these trees is excellent material for a multitude of uses including floors, beams and railroad ties. Left alone, a White Oak may live up to 500 years and grow to 100 feet – both up and across.
Oddly enough, a vast majority of wine is not stored in wooden barrels at all, but instead is stored in giant steel casks. Still, the art of making wine in oak barrels consistently produces the best wines. And the White Oak is a key source of what makes those wines as good as they are. If you were to look up the most expensive wines, you would find they all received their start in an oak barrel. While the French oak is more subtle and popular in its use than American, the White Oak ads a character all its own and can make wines more robust.
Additional source: Arbor Day Foundation, A field guide to trees and shrubs
Daryle W. Hier
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