American oak boom!

American oak boom! – use of American oak in wine barrels

Most would agree that American oak barrels are vastly improved over what they were a decade ago. That improvement is reflected in sales figures and worldwide demand. Even the French have started using American oak in some quantity. Ed Larmie of World Cooperage expects sales of up to 15,000 American oak barrels to France in 1999.

For the most part, there are no trade secrets behind the quality improvement. It comes to two things: extended air drying and toasting over oak.

“Simply put, the answer is air drying and proper toasting,” Larmie said. “But it begins with just a better understanding of the differences between French and American oak. Once you understand the differences, it makes it easier to come up with ways to improve the quality.”

Mark Heinemann of Demptos Napa Cooperage said a key point in the air drying is the “seasoning” of the wood. “Not only are we trying to deplete the moisture but the wood undergoes an organic transformation. We know from our research that during the first 18 months of aging, a mold grows on the staves that affects the natural wood sugar development. At about 18 months the mold dies off and wood development plateaus. Between 18 and 24 months is the peak for development of the potential of the wood.” Heinemann said Demptos air dried the wood in Missouri (where it is sourced) because of high natural humidity and frequent rainfall, which encouraged the development of the mold.

As for toasting, Heinemann said it is done at Demptos over open fires of scrap oak. The open fires lead to a longer toast and more penetration, according to Heinemann.

Henry (Max) Gasiewicz of Tonnellerie Radoux USA, Inc. said an important change in toasting methods was extended toasting which helps eliminate the “bourbon” character He also said better understanding of sourcing was critical.

“We use four different sources which differ greatly in their characteristics. Wood from Missouri tends to have more of that sweet vanilla, coconut character. Minnesota wood generally has a tighter grain with less coconut character. Wood from eastern Kentucky and western Virginia has more of a lemon cream character that some identify as a more ‘Bordeaux’-like barrel. Oregon wood is very different. It seems to be the only American wood with true tannins,” Gasiewicz said.

Others, such as Larmie are not convinced that the source of the wood is that important. “I don’t think it matters that much as long as it is treated properly. We do know that the fineness of the grain can make a difference on the amount of extraction, but that is more site specific in a micro sense than macro. You can find trees from Missouri with fine grain and trees from Minnesota with wide grain, which is usually associated with Missouri. In fact, you can find trees 25 yards apart from any area that have both fine and wide grain.” Larmie added that he has even seen fine grain and wide grain in the same tree.

Henry Work of Canton Cooperage said they source wood from five stave mills, primarily from Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee.

“There have been many experiments but no one has yet come back for sure and said this is the best source. At this point, there is no major discernible difference.”

Duane Wall at Tonnellerie Francaise Nadalie, USA ran tasting trials on a fairly large scale in 1996 and 1997 with another trial planned for the 1998 vintage. He said preliminary results may be released on the first trials in November. Wall believes it has been well established that wood origin makes a difference in France. Preliminary results of the Tonnellerie Francaise tests of American oak also indicate some difference in origin, especially in the effect of oak on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Raymond Willmers at Mendocino Cooperage believes that in general the cooler climate of Minnesota produces a tighter grain, but he has also seen tight grained wood from Missouri where the soils are poorer. “It’s something we are just learning about,” he said. “It seems to be somewhat like stressed vines, with poor soils producing a tighter grain regardless of the climate. Having said that, we see the Minnesota wood as more subtle than other American woods, more like the French wood.”

Heinemann said the Demptos wood is sourced in a 50-square-mile area of southern Missouri, from soils that are depleted and poor, which leads to a tighter grain. “This slows extraction and you can actually get another one or two years use from a Demptos barrel,” he added.

Gasiewicz made the point that different oak sources, whether within the U.S. or a combination of U.S. and French, gave the winemaker more options. “Many people are using both French and American, which is fine,” he said.

Henry Work noted that American winemakers are learning how to utilize American oak, learning what varietals it works best with. “It’s like the California wine industry 20 or 30 years ago when they looked to France. Now they’ve learned their own strengths and niches.”

Willmers at Mendocino Cooperage, which is owned by Brown-Forman Corp., said, “American oak will never be French oak. It brings its own particular thing and contributes different flavor profiles to the wine.” He added that with Chardonnay the differences can be hard to distinguish after six months or so in the bottle. “Chardonnay aged in French oak is softer sooner. After 90 days, it is showing very well. But after the fifth or sixth month, it is hard to tell the difference.”

Although demand has been heavy for American oak barrels, not only in the U.S. but abroad, there seems to be no shortage of wood. “There is plenty of wood in the U.S.,” Henry Work said. “The problem is the limited number of mills. The mills can’t keep up with the demand.” Work said that many mills closed with the decline in the bourbon business, not realizing they could have shifted to wine barrel production.

There is some concern, however, that as wine production increases around the world and demand for barrels grows, the quality of the American oak will suffer. The average French tree is 160 years old, with the average diameter about 24 to 25 inches. American trees are usually cut younger than that, but since American oak is sawn, not split, more wood can be taken from a single tree.

Vincent Bouchard of Tonnellerie Lafitte has his American oak staves dried and the barrels made in France. “I think there may be microspores in the air that are important in the quality of the wood,” he said, pointing out that staves have been dried at the same cooperage there for many decades.

World Cooperage also has a milling operation in France, near Cognac, where both French and American oak barrels are made. “It seems to ease the pain of the French buying American oak if the barrels are made in France,” Ed Larmie said. “Our business in France has grown over 100% each year.”

Seguin Moreau has also achieved significant sales in France of American oak barrels. In 1994, only 400 were sold. In 1997, the total was 7,000. In a recent Seguin Moreau newsletter, Phillippe Fezas, an enologist with the company wrote, “Everyone thought that the main thrust of demand would come from the vineyards in the south of France, and in particular of Languedoc-Roussillon. It so happened that it was the Bordeaux growers who were the first to decide to bring American oak barrels into their cellars. Now we are seeing the opposite phenomenon: given the results obtained in the Bordeaux region, the Languedoc growers are showing significant interest.”

Fezas said that American oak produces good results with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular, although its use with Carignane, Pinot noir or Chardonnay “is more delicate.” He added, “What matters most is to clearly understand and interpret its interactions with the wine. With American oak, the wine takes up the woodiness extremely fast. You have to learn to be patient, to leave the reactions to develop. On average, the most gainful period is between 6 and 9 months…the aromatic input of American oak is practically linear. If you wait too long, the balance will be upset the other way, with an excess of wood. Constant monitoring is essential.”

In the same newsletter, Michel Roure, enologist for the Foncalieu Group in Languedoc wrote: “Three years ago, we launched major aging projects using a high percentage of American oak with our Chardonnay and Syrah wines, at Villesequelande and Puicheric respectively. Having started with a proportion of 40% for the Chardonnay, we noticed that it was not easy to obtain a satisfactory balance, which resulted in the decision to reduce the quantity of American oak for the two following years. For the reds, however, we use a large proportion of American oak, because there is a very exciting marriage with the Syrah variety.”

Bruno Eynart, enologist for Chateau Lagrange in Saint-Julien, wrote in the Seguin Moreau newsletter, “Initially, the aromatic power of American oak tends to work against it. Nevertheless, there is an input of woody, roasted aromas which becomes positive if you get the quantities right. That’s why after a first test on the ’94 vintage, we decided to use a proportion of between 5% and 10% of American oak in the aging of our second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange.”

Alain Fouquet at Seguin Moreau’s Napa Cooperage, said that recent breakthroughs in quality have resulted from years of working with the same wood suppliers and “educating them to recognize that quality is fundamental for premium American oak wine barrels.”

Although it is usual to speak of American oak as if it were all the same – Quercus alba – there are, in fact, many different kinds. Investigations have shown a rather complex species mix of Quercus in forests of the upper south, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. The exact mix or forest cuvee, if you will, may contribute as yet unknown complexities to the American oak barrel.

On the west coast, Quercus Garryana, has its own flavor profile and is gaining some fans among winemakers. It is commonly called Oregon oak, although it actually grows from Mendocino County in California to Vancouver in British Columbia. Barrel broker Mel Knox said about 1,000 barrels were made using garryana this year and he expects that to increase to some 1,800 barrels next year. The Oregon stave mill is operated by Francois Freres of France through Demptos Napa Cooperage.

On the winery side, producers such as Silver Oak Cellars in Napa and Sonoma, have used American oak for many years to produce a distinctive and recognizable style of Cabernet Sauvignon. Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge winery in Napa and Archery Summit winery in Oregon is a strong advocate of Oregon oak.

“I’ve always been a French oak guy,” Andrus said, “but I also respect the Freres cooperage. I know they are as passionate about wood as I am about wine, so I started running some experiments. I thought it would be interesting to have an Oregon Pinot noir aged in Oregon oak barrels. Archery Summit 1996 Chene D’Oregon was aged in 100% Oregon oak barrels. Frankly, I was stunned with the depth and quality of the wine.” Andrus said the Oregon oak seemed to impart a pungent smoky note. He compared it to French red oak in style.

The results with Oregon Pinot noir impressed Andrus so much that he began using some Oregon oak in his Napa wines and found it a particularly good match with Rutherford Cabernet. In the end, he believes he might put up to 20% Oregon oak in his Rutherford Cabernet. He has now begun looking at other American oak on an experimental basis.

At ZD Wines in Napa, Norman De Leuze has been using American oak since the winery opened in 1969. “In the beginning it was largely a matter of availability. We got serious about American oak when Tonnellerie Francaise opened and began doing a lot of comparisons.”

ZD is still running a complex series of tests, involving different forests for both French and American oak and different toast levels. The results, according to De Leuze are still “inconclusive” especially after the wine has been in bottle for a time.

“There are differences, but they are very subtle. We use French wood in our Pinot noir but all American oak in our Chardonnay. We feel the American oak matches the tropical fruit character of the Chardonnay.” He also likes American oak with Cabernet Sauvignon.

The new acceptance and demand for American oak barrels has come about not because of price, according to Mark Heinemann of Demptos, but because winemakers around the world are selecting American oak for its specific flavor components. “I think the market will continue to grow for quality American oak as more winemakers learn of its advantages,” he said.

Resources for American oak barrels or staves:

Barrels Unlimited, Inc., 4333 South Fowler, Fresno, CA 93725; Tel.: (562) 438-9901; Fax: (562) 438-9921.

Canton Cooperage, 365 South Woodlawn, Lebanon, KY 40033; Tel.: (800) 692-9888; Fax: (502) 692-3998.

Demptos Napa Cooperage, 1050 Soscol Ferry Road, Napa, CA 94558; Tel.: (707) 257-2628; Fax: (707) 257-1622.

Innerstave, 24200 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA 94576; Tel.: (707) 996-8781; Fax: (707) 996-1157.

Mel Knox Barrel Broker, 505 29th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121; Tel.: (415) 751-6806; Fax: (415) 221-5873

Mendocino Cooperage, 12901 East Side Road, RO. Box 611, Hopland, CA 95449; Tel.: (707) 744-7426; Fax: (707) 744-7422.

Pickering Winery Supply, 888 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; Tel.: (415) 474-1588; Fax: (415) 474-1617.

Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, 151 Camino Dorado, Napa, CA 94558; Tel.: (707) 252-3408; Fax: (707) 252-0519.

Stavin, Inc. RO. Box 1695, Sausalito, CA 94966; Tel.: (415) 551-7849; Fax: (415) 551-0516.

Tonnellerie Lafitte, P.O. Box 2322, Napa, CA 94558; Tel.: (707) 257-3582; Fax: (707) 252-0852.

Tonnellerie Radoux USA, 578 Martin Avenue, Rohnert Park, CA 94928; Tel.: (707) 588-9144; Fax: (707) 588-8547.

United Barrels, 1804 Soscol Avenue, #100, Napa, CA 94559; Tel.: (707) 259-5223; Fax: (707) 259-5324.

World Cooperage, 2557 Napa Valley Corporate Way, Suite D, Napa, CA 94558; Tel.: (707) 255-5900; Fax: (707) 255-5952.

(Erery effort is made in the Resources to include all relevant producers. But sometimes we can’t find everyone. If we hare missed you, please let us know for future reference and inclusion in stories.)

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