Tag Archives: French Oak

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.

Twist

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.

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

PS: Check out our May Special – Get the world’s best with an incredible value if ever there was one.

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Bernie The Barrel – Part 1

Prologue

As evidenced by our adage at Paso Wine Barrels of ‘all barrels, all the time’ along with maybe too many ideas in our heads, this fictional yarn is about French barrels that make their way to the Americas. This may eventually be a book, but we wanted to offer our fans and readers a first look – chapter-by-chapter.

Bernard, or Bernie as he becomes, has a long journey ahead of him with ordeals underlying the predicament with wine barrels – they are attractive to start and help make great wines, but then after their use, most anything can and does happen to these once beautiful crafted oak barrels. We chronicle the life of this majestic and beautiful French oak wine barrel along with the trials and tribulations over many years. Also, this tale will take into account his other wine barrel friends and a near death experience with a dramatic rescue that could save his life.

Ron Hier wrote the main story with Daryle Hier helping and adding to the tale. Daryle and Jo Hier are the editors. Follow along and hopefully you’ll have fun and learn a little something about the world of wine barrels … from the barrel’s perspective. 

In The Beginning

South of Paris, among the principal stands of oaks in the middle of France and the French forests, are some of the best white oak trees in all of Europe, if not the world. To the west near the Atlantic Ocean on the Garonne River is Bordeaux, one of the larger cities in France but more importantly one of the great wine regions of the world.Bordeaux_France

It is here that Bernard the wine barrel was born in a cooperage (barrel manufacturing plant). At that same time, three other barrels: Henri, Francois and Mael were also born. Bernard’s first words to his friends was “Bonjour mes amis, je suis Bernard le tonneau de vin” or “Hello my friends, I am Bernard the wine barrel.”

After he was made, upon examination Cooper (the fellow that was in charge of building Bernard) declared him another handsome French made oak wine barrel, with all of his parts in good shape. His staves were beautiful, his head, chime and croze (very end of the staves), all in good order, with his steel hoops fine and his stave joints perfect.

Shortly after final inspection, Cooper built a fire inside of him (don’t worry it’s okay, this happens with most new barrels and it doesn’t hurt), it’s called “toasting” and according to Cooper it made Bernard a better barrel capable of producing beautiful wine. Said Bernard after the extraordinary process, “Look at me, here I am a brand new barrel and I’m already toasted.”

He was indeed a new and beautiful barrel but as it was for all other wine barrels, they don’t stay in the cooperage very long and Cooper was getting ready to send them away soon. Bernard said the four friends should call themselves the Four Musketeers – “One for all, all for one” he encouraged, along with “En avant”, meaning onward.

These French oak barrels were very fine and tighter than other white oaks, giving the qualities that ensure flavors to a wine that are more subtle, yet silkier than other countries and regions. The Musketeers were all synonymous in their quality, great-looks and noble pride as French oak barrels and that wherever they were going, they would try to stay together and always keep themselves presentable and make France proud – but this would be easier said than done.

Excited about the idea of being part of another great Bordeaux wine,Barrels_onracks France would not be these particular barrel’s final destination. Bernard was stacked in a warehouse on end with a bunch of other barrels and after looking around, much to his surprise, his friends, Henri, Francois and Mael were not there. He knew then that the Four Musketeers were separated and had not even had a chance to become close friends.  What now?

Great wines are made in oak barrels and great wine is likely in the four Musketeers future. Still, Bernard and friends would discover soon enough that they were in for quite a world-wind ride, creating fine wines as some of the best oak barrels on Earth. But what awaits in a new world?

Cheers,

Ron and Daryle W. Hier

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White Oak – Perfect For Wine

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?

Old White Oaks can be as wide as they are tall.

Old White Oaks can be as wide as they are tall.

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.

A stack of staves before being assembled into a wine barrel.

A stack of staves before being assembled into a wine barrel.

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.

The leaves on a White Oak can turn a dark red color in the fall.

The leaves on a White Oak can turn a dark red color in the fall.

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

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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