I recently placed my order for new oak barrels. OUCH! This can be a painful and arduous process, especially under budget constraints and a recent change in cooperages. However, my winemaking style requires the use of some new oak, and that new oak needs to be in premium french barrels and hybrid puncheons. But why?
I find that my tendency in wine making is to employ a 15%-20% new oak program in my Bordeaux style wines, very low new oak in my Rhones and Mediterranean style wines. Of course I use no oak on my whites. I spend a good deal of time concerned with harvest parameters and phenolic balance, so too much oak can certainly mask the varietal typicity I work so hard to capture! Having said this, a little bit of oak adds a good deal of flavor, mouthfeel and aroma to wine if used artfully.
I compare the use of new oak barrels to that of salt in food. Almost all foods can do with a wee bit of salt! A simple dash can truly enhance the synergy of flavors in a dish. However, once the salt is detected, it may be too much. Unless you are pickling or brining a food, the saltiness of a food could very easily mask all of the flavors of the primary ingredients and deaden the palate.
The same is true with oak influence in wine. Some oak can turn a lovely wine into something better, without obvious oak characteristics. However, wine is and always will be primarily about the grape. Hence, wines with HUGE notes of wood, plankiness and overt vanilla and char are imbalanced and mask all other aromas inherent in the fruit.
So how do I ensure that I use just the right amount of oak in a blend?
The key is in the blend! One of the joys of making mostly blends is that I can make several different wines from the same barrel of new oak wine, to ensure that I am adding just the right amount of new oak wine to a blend.
Why do I only use oak barrels and not oak adjuncts?
The extraction of oak flavors in wine is proportional to surface area of the oak. The greater the surface area, the greater the speed and intensity of extraction. Thus, oak dust, chips and beans have far more surface area, and so follows a rapid extraction of oak characteristics. I find that oak adjuncts are “planky” and far too woody for my taste. Oak barrels offer a slower extraction, a milder influence of woodiness depending on the toast profile of the barrels. The larger the barrel, the slower the extraction with all other parameters being equal. Larger format barrels, like a 500 liter Puncheon, offer a very slow extraction that I really prefer, especially for the Rhones.
But aren’t oak barrels really expensive?
OH YES THEY ARE!!!
My French barrels are roughly $1200, and coopered in France with specific forest origination. In my red wine program, oak is the second most costly component. My puncheons are a wee bit less expensive, mostly because they are coopered here in the States with American oak staves and French oak heads. It is more costly to ship coopered barrels than pallets of aged staves for an American cooperage.
What is the difference between American, French and Eastern European barrels?
This is where wine makers start to get fidgety…some wine makers are ardently devoted to a particular type of oak, cooperage or forest of origin. Some see very little difference in barrels at all. I happen to lean to a school of thought that allows for the variance in oak sources as a tool to illicit a particular characteristic I would like in that wine. For example, I love the tobacco and vanilla notes in french oak on a Syrah, but I also love the caramel and coconut influence from American oak. Thus, I use hybrid puncheons. Each oak type provides a kind of spice, tannin and overall mouthfeel specifically, and often the flavor profiles can be narrowed down to the specific barrel! I have my favorites in my barrel room.
French oak barrels are typically made in two forms, the Bordeaux style, 225 L and slightly bullet shaped, and the Burgundy style, 228 L and a bit shorter and fatter than Bordeaux’s. French barrels are sourced from several forests; Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges. French oak is from both Quercus robur (common oak) and Quercus petraea (white oak), but the white oak is considered much tighter grained and far superior. The grain of this oak is not vertical and the staves cut from one tree create a large volume of waste. The most premium of french barrels are white oak single forest sourced and seasoned for 3 years before cooperage! The toast and flavor profiles from these premium French barrels really cannot be compared to cheaper American barrels. The slow extraction of tight grain illicits subtle tobacco and vanilla with mild tannin influence. I love these barrels!
American oak barrels are made from Quercus alba, or American White Oak from the forests in Eastern United States. We make our wine barrels after the French example of Burgundy and Bordeaux shapes, however, the American hogshead and whiskey barrels are sometimes used for wine. This kind of oak has vertical grains that create very little waste, and thus far more of the tree is used for staves. The lower cost of American barrels is reflected in this consideration, along with domestic cooperage. American white oak is more porous than French, and can provide a more aggressive extraction. Often a caramel coconut and butterscotch notes are present in American barrels. I like Tempranillo in American oak, as well as Syrah’s.
Eastern European oaks are often from Slavonian oak from the species Quercus robur. I don’t know much about these barrels, as I have never used them, but I may in the future. The oak is reportedly less aromatic and provides medium tannin with tight grain. It might be good for wines that could use a tiny bit of oak, like a Sangiovese blend.
What about cooperages?
I order my new barrels from a specific cooperage, although my barrel room has almost every cooperage stamp in it! Some cooperages will NEVER see my patronage again, as the barrel quality and extraction have come close to ruining my wine. However, cooperages change over time, and I firmly believe that barrels are as taciturn and capricious as grapes themselves. The year of the oak is harvested and the weather in drying seasons can determine the quality of the oak as much as the brand of cooper or the quality of the tree. Not all barrels are created equal, and expecting that a particular cooper can deliver a statically characteristic barrel every time is pure ignorance.