For those who pay attention to the nuances of wine barrels, it can be almost daunting as to the who, what, where and hows, let alone which kind of barrel to use. Winemakers are always trying to get that advantage over the other to make the next great wine. The type of oak barrel can be that differentiation that vintners are looking for.
I talked to a winemaker a couple months back and he said his mind spins when considering the array of different oak barrels that are available. There is of course wood from the forests of France, but also barrels are produce from oaks of Eastern Europe. Then there is American oak, which can be generated from the Midwest, Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest. Missouri is probably the leading state for production of white oak.
To make things more complex, cooperages, in conjuncture with winemakers are combining the dissimilar white oaks from different states to produce yet even more differentiation. Now you can see why the aforementioned winemaker’s brain is spinning like a top.
Vintners generally think the difference between European and American oak is the tighter grain that oak such as French have over American, allowing the French oak to offer a more subtle degree to wine while American barrels impaired a more oak-based spicy and vanilla texture to wine. That may not be exactly correct.
Now, an interesting article just came out (source: Coeur d’ Alene Press), suggesting that winemakers may be able to produce French-like results using American oak. Without going into the nuances of making wine barrels, certain cooperages are leaving the staves out to dry over at least a couple years time. This outdoor drying after toasting gives off less of an oak taste to wine – in affect doing the same thing to wine as the tighter French oak does. For more specifics, go to the sourced story linked at the beginning of this paragraph.
If indeed coopers can make an American wine barrel process wine the same way French barrels do, may this change the purchase habits of wineries? French barrels are more expensive than American so this could have been a huge issue if it weren’t for the fact that this new procedure is more time consuming and therefore loses the cost effectiveness of buying American oak barrels.
As we learn along the way, it becomes apparent that making wine is an ever-evolving process with every part of crafting a wine refined, changed and just plain blown up as ingenious winemakers continue to alter the methods of winemaking.
Daryle W. Hier
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