Tag Archives: cooperage

American Oak Like French?

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.

Wine barrel staves

Wine barrel staves

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.

Stacks of staves drying in a kiln

Usually staves for a wine barrel are dried in a kiln.

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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Missouri Oak

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.

Ozarks are filled numerous trees including a great deal of White Oaks.

Ozarks are filled with numerous trees including a great deal of White Oaks.

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.

Oak tree ring

Rings on an oak tell the age of a tree.

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.

VS France

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.


Brand new oak wine barrels from Missouri

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

Salootie Patootie,

Daryle W. Hier


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Wine Barrel History

Since our business is the beautification of old, used wine barrels, I thought it would be interesting to know some history on just how, when and where the old wooden wine casks started.

Amphora was used for wine before wooden cask came along.

Early accounts show there is not an exact time the wooden barrel began to be used but history indicates that it goes back to the era of the Roman Empire.  Before that time, the common container for storage, fermentation and aging was the Amphora.  The Amphora dates back to the Lithos’ (new stone-age) era and were ceramic vases of various sizes, with handles on a narrow neck which stood about two to four feet from the floor usually next to a table.  Larger Amphoras could hold about 100 pounds of liquid, usually wine.  Sealed with pine resin, they were commonly painted with beautiful colors, sometimes by famous artists and painters. The vessels were generally owned by the elite.

History reads that Herodotus used palm-wood casks to ship Armenian wine to Babylon in Mesopotamia but the barrel as we know it today was most likely developed by the Celts. Their technique of bending planks through heating, in the process of making hulls for boats, evolved into a method of building wooden barrels.  It seems the shape of the barrel, a cylinder, fat in the center and drawn in on the ends with flat top and bottom aided in moving heavy items due to leverage.


18th Century cooperage

Wooden barrels for wine making are made of either French common oak, White oak or American white oak.  Generally there are two sizes:  “Bordeaux type “at 59 US gallons (225 liters) and “Cognac type” at 79 US gallons (300 liters).  The maker of wooden barrels is called a cooper and the plant is called a cooperage.

The history of the wooden barrel seems to be based on transportation; however, the primary importance of the cask today is fermentation, aging and storage.  Vanilla and wood tannins from the oak conjure up flavor for the wine.  Aging time in the barrel is very important; the maturity for different wines can be as much as several years depending on the winemaker and varietal of grape.

When the aging process is complete, grapes are processed and wine is bottled, leaving empty barrels which hopefully are at there end.  Paso Wine Barrels will then rescue Winebarrel-adjfireplant-info_bthem and craftily process each entire cask into a beautiful piece of furniture to be enjoyed for years to come.  We hope you have enjoyed this piece of barrel history.  Save the barrels and …

…Salootie Patootie

Ron Hier