When Aric Schmiling took over as winemaker for Wisconsin’s von Stiehl Winery in 1997, he had a lot to learn. His parents purchased the farm when Schmiling and his brother, Brad, were young, and he’d grown up at the winery. To take on winemaking operations was a big step, but he was ready to make a few changes.
Two years into his new career, Schmiling met with the winery’s longstanding barrel provider, T.W. Boswell. He wanted to experiment with aging his wines in French oak, known for its finer grain and high tannins. The cooper’s suggestion? Use hybrid barrels, made from a blend of two or more species of oak.
Why? Because hybrid barrels offer unique aging benefits—and it’s less expensive.
The influence that wood has on a finished wine or spirit is immense, but to use 100% French oak barrels can be cost prohibitive.
“We thought it would be a good way to experiment with French oak and not have to lay out upwards of $900 for a full French oak barrel,” says Schmiling. “It started out as more of an economic [solution] and seeing how we liked them.”
The hybrid barrel used American oak staves, which are the long, concave pieces of wood that make up the body of the barrel. They were joined by French oak heads, the circular pieces of wood that enclose each end. Schmiling channeled benefits from each type of oak into everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to Tempranillo and Montepulciano.
“American oak is far softer and gives different components, like vanilla and toffee. French oak gives more spicy and botanical components, and more structure.” —María Barúa, winemaker, Bodegas LAN
“American oak has more lactone than French oak and requires shorter aging,” says Vincent Nadalié, president & VP of Sales for France-based cooperage Nadalié. “A winemaker uses French oak because they’re going to age the wines longer. There are more floral notes from French oak and tannins.”
To combine the two, he says, allows for more detailed spice work.
Though Schmiling has begun to age some of his wines in French oak barrels, about 85% of the barrels currently in use at von Stiehl Winery are American-French hybrids like the ones he began experimenting with 20 years ago.
“I think the elegance of the hybrid barrel allows us to find balance between the oak and the natural flavor of the fruit,” he says. “I really feel like I was getting the good benefit of the French oak in these barrels.”
Broad but limited appeal
María Barúa had a similar experience soon after she became winemaker for Bodegas LAN in 2002. Its cellars, which house about 20,000 casks, contain roughly 60% hybrids made from American staves and French heads. She says the winery pioneered the use of hybrid barrels in Spain.
“We decided that when we play with the staves from American oak and the heads from French oak, we get good balance and structure,” says Barua. “American oak is far softer and gives different components, like vanilla and toffee. French oak gives more spicy and botanical components, and more structure.”
For Barua, cost savings were secondary to her desire to create a unique product. “We wanted a new style of Rioja Crianza that was more fruity,” she says. “[Our cooper] proposed this.”
Two of the winery’s prominent labels are aged in hybrid barrels. The Crianza spends 14 months in barrel to round out and soften sweeter fruit flavors with vanilla and cinnamon, while the Reserva sits at least 16 months to strengthen its aroma concentration and structure.
Other wineries have had great success using hybrid barrels, like Pescatore Vineyard & Winery with its Barbera, with a trial run on Zinfandel coming soon; Messina Hof Winery’s Private Reserve Double Barrel Tempranillo as well as their Fusion Series; LDV Winery’s 2012 Viognier; and Steele’s Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills 2016.
Room for growth
Though von Stiehl Winery, Bodegas LAN and others have embraced hybrid barrels, it remains a niche market.
Jason Stout, vice president of marketing and business development for Missouri-based Independent Stave Company (ISC), says it’s far more common for winemakers to invest in 100% French or American oak barrels, and later blend wines to incorporate influences from each. ISC has made barrels for distilleries and wineries since 1950s. Since then, the company has acquired several other brands like T.W. Boswell to gain reach and influence worldwide.
“On the wine side, we’ve been selling hybrid barrels since the ’90s,” says Stout. He says that sales of these hybrid barrels have remained fairly static and likely represent less than 5% of the market. “It sort of fit in this niche of different programs, and it has a place in the market.”
The primary incentive for winemakers to use hybrid barrels is still largely economic.
“I think that what hybrid barrels started out as and what they’re becoming are two different things. It was a way to save a little bit of money, and now they’re becoming a much more sophisticated product that is very customized and specific.” —Jason Stout, of marketing and business development, Independent Stave Company
“Last year French oak took a 30% increase [in cost],” says Nadalié, whose cooperage has been in his family for five generations. It launched an outpost in Napa Valley in 1980, the first French cooperage in America. “The price of French oak barrels will increase 4–5% every year now. I see in the future more American oak coming back for this reason. Economically, [hybrid barrels] will be less expensive than the French oak, and more expensive than the American oak.”
What’s next for hybrid barrels?
When it comes to the creation of hybrid barrels with different species of oak, the sky’s the limit.
Nadalié began to sell American-French hybrid barrels in the 1980s, but its offerings, like many other cooperages, have expanded. They now include barrels made with French oak staves and Hungarian oak heads, French oak staves with American oak heads, and a 50/50 blend of American and French oak, among others.
ISC hopes that demand for hybrid barrels grows in a way to allows winemakers and distillers to target specific flavors and create a particular profile.
“I think that what hybrid barrels started out as and what they’re becoming are two different things,” says Stout. “It was a way to save a little bit of money, and now they’re becoming a much more sophisticated product that is very customized and specific. I think that’s great for the industry.”
The company launched a “fusion barrel” program recently through its brand, World Cooperage. It allows clients to build custom barrels with their choice of oak.
“We have some proprietary tech that we use that helps us arrange our staves into barrels, and we can use it to do, for example, 25% American oak staves and 75% French oak staves and European oak heads,” says Stout. He says the company plans to keep certain oak blends proprietary.
“It’s been interesting because not only are you able to build complexity into that barrel because you have different physiology and compounds in the oak itself, but it’s also fitting this niche of bespoke barrels,” he says.
“We reached out [to Radoux cooperage] to bring a full Wisconsin offering. Wisconsin grown, Wisconsin produced, Wisconsin oak through our estate grown wine.” —Aric Schmiling, winemaker, von Stiehl Winery
World Cooperage has conducted chemical analysis of different kinds of oak on wine and spirits alongside taste tests for years. One such study sought to understand how hybrid barrels impact a wine’s acidity, residual sugars, tannins and lactone, among other things.
What they found was surprising.
“Analysis showed that the chemical analysis of the wine was quite different, especially with the hybrid barrels,” says Stout. “The extraction kinetics change. We don’t understand entirely what’s going on there, but we did see something very different in that hybrid barrel than what we saw in the [traditional] barrels.”
Both Bodegas LAN and von Stiehl Winery are exploring the depths of such customization. Barua says that Bodegas LAN has begun to test how Spanish oak influences its wines. Schmiling points to Wisconsin oak as its next frontier.
“Another company we work with is Radoux, and they were offering the Wisconsin oak hybrid,” says Schmiling. He uses Wisconsin hybrids for the winery’s estate-grown reds, like its 2012 Estate Grown Marquette.
“We reached out to them on that to bring a full Wisconsin offering,” he says. “Wisconsin grown, Wisconsin produced, Wisconsin oak through our estate grown wine.”
A collaborative spirit
The desire to innovate has also caught on with distillers in recent years. It’s not hard to track down a whiskey, rum or Tequila aged or finished in anything from Sherry and Port to former wine casks. Stout says that hybrid barrels have started to creep into the fray over the past 15 or so years. Even some breweries, like Against the Grain, have gotten in on the action. Its “One Helluva Lass” brew employs a French-American oak hybrid.
Hybridization can also go beyond the combination of oaks in a single barrel, as producers experiment with blends from multiple barrels to find the ideal balance. In 2016, Indian distillery Amrut launched its Spectrum Whisky 005, aged in a combination of five different barrels: new American, Spanish and French oak, as well as ex-PX and ex-Oloroso Sherry barrels. The resulting whisky was such a hit that a second soon followed, Amrut Spectrum Whisky 004. Also in 2016, Jefferson’s Bourbon released a selection of Wood Experiments whiskeys that included one aged in a hybrid wine barrel of French and American oak.
The blending trend also shows up in surprising places, like in Absolut Amber. That vodka gets its amber hue from a mix of American and Swedish oak. Tequila producers have also begun to utilize hybrid barrels.
“Tequilerias have been pretty adventurous,” says Stout. “We’ve been doing trials with [Tequila distillers] with different kinds of oak for a good 15 to 20 years.”
Patrón has embraced hybrid aging with great success. Its extra-añejo offering, Gran Patrón Piedra, launched in 2014. It’s aged for up to four years with new French Limousin oak staves and used American oak heads.
“The American wood imparts the caramel and vanilla notes, while the French oak adds more wood, dry fruits and spice flavoring,” says Antonio Rodriguez, production director at Patrón. He says that it was important for the distillery to choose a blend of oak species that would create a unique offering.
This combination, he says, allows for a Tequila that’s sweet, yet rich and complex and combines an herbaceous agave flavor with light vanilla, and fresh mushroom.