When it comes to white oak, you can find them all over the United States though primarily in the eastern half of the country. However, when it comes to where cooperages find American White Oak (quercus alba) for creating wine barrels, largely most of the wood derives from one region: Missouri.
The vast majority of white oak comes from four regions of the U.S., and they are: Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia. There are other areas, such as Oregon and Northern California which produce some white oak for wine barrels, but again, the bulk of oak in America comes from these regions listed. Still, Missouri dominates the others with overall production.
In fact, only France produces more wood for oak wine barrels than Missouri. American and French oak differ with the tightness of grain being a major distinction, which in-turn allows American barrels to give off more intricacies in flavor than French. American wine barrels tend to breath slightly more.
Mizzou compared to the rest
Encasing wine, American White Oak gives off a touch of spicy vanilla with maybe dill. And there are nuances between the different sections of the U.S. (sources listed below). For instance, Virginia’s white oaks are not that unsimilar to French oak due to its tighter grains; and therefore are more subtle than their other American counterparts. Pennsylvania white oak offers a smoky background while Minnesota oaks are more astringent (caused by tannins) and maybe can create a more drier wine. In contrast, white oaks from Missouri give off a toasted and coconut taste.
It should be noted that Missouri forests were always a major contributor for whiskey barrels over the many centuries, so when wine became a big business in America, the same cooperages and more began producing wine barrels.
Over the years, cooperages and winemakers have figured out that the thick American oak barrels could be recoopered including retoasting. That adds value and life to the barrels so when combined with taking cues from the French, the quality of barrels coming out of the U.S. is as good as French barrels in some instances.
Missouri white oaks typically take about 80 years to grow and another two years of aged drying once they’re made into a barrel. The southeastern half of Missouri is generally where you’ll find these nearly century old oaks – think Ozarks. By the way, this is also the population center of the U.S. For what it’s worth, the south central portion of the state is where you’ll typically find an abundance of slow growth white oaks making them the best for wine barrels. I might say, having family in this neck of the woods, I can attest to the abundance of these great trees.
Some might say that Missouri white oaks are better than French – blasphemous to utter in some parts of the world. However, trees from this region of the Midwest grow in what is mostly poor soil laden with rocks making trees grow more slowly adding more growth rings and thus making the barrels breath better.
The Missouri wine barrel business continues to grow and although Missouri and France may be worlds apart in more ways than most, regardless, they have one very important item comparable: white oak wine barrels.
Sources: University of California at Davis, Kendall-Jackson, University of Missouri
Daryle W. Hier
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