If a tree falls in the forest, does it matter the forest from which it came? Winemakers seem to think so.
People who make wines have an opinion about practically everything, from which grapes to grow, what type of trellis systems to use in the vineyard, when to pick, and far, far more.
So, it should not surprise many that to ferment and age their wines, some decide to use barrels made from oak trees grown in Europe, while others use oak from indigenous American forests. Some even do both, depending on the grape variety or blend.
Though American and French barrels are made from same genus of white oak, that’s where the similarities end. The debate is especially intense for big red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties.
“French oak has more tannins, while American oak is more aromatic with sweeter tastes of vanilla and coconut,” says Chris Hansen, general manager of the Napa Valley workshop for French barrel maker Seguin Moreau. The cooperage produces barrels for the American market with wood from both countries.
Many California Cabernet producers use the same French oak as Bordeaux chateaus, with wood from state-run forests like Limousin or Nevers. But California producers have always possessed an independent streak, which some trace to the industry’s ascent here in the mid-1900s.
André Tchelistcheff, the famed Russian-born winemaker credited with raising the quality of California winemaking, switched to American oak barrels for his iconic Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon during World War II. Many of today’s American oak devotees have ties to him. Another well-regarded contemporary of Tchelistcheff, Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers, was also committed to American barrels.
Why choose American oak over French
Among the famous brands that employ all or partial American oak today are Ridge, Silver Oak, Hess Collection, Cline, Rombauer, J. Lohr, The Prisoner and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
When the legendary Paul Draper took over winemaking at Ridge Vineyards in 1969, he tested French oak barrels and others produced from trees grown in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. He decided on the latter, says Eric Baugher, who took over the reins from Draper in 2016.
“Paul and the Ridge founders did not want to make an imitation Bordeaux,” says Baugher. “American oak is twice as dense as French, carrying greater spice and wood sugar compounds that slowly extract and fill out a wine’s body. In the case of Monte Bello [vineyard grapes], with high tannin contents, the American oak’s sweetness coats the tannins and helps make the wine more sensuous and exotic.”
That extra density means that an American barrel can weigh about twice as much as a French counterpart.
David Duncan, whose father, Raymond, co-founded Silver Oak with former Christian Brothers monk Justin Meyer, says that Tchelistcheff and Brother Timothy were big influences on the winery’s decision to use American barrels.
“[My father and Justin] tried Yugoslavian barrels in the early ’70’s, but never French barrels,” says Duncan. Silver Oak owns a Missouri cooperage, and about 85–90% of the facility’s annual 1,000-barrel production goes to its wines.
Charlie Tsegeletos, the longtime winemaker at Cline Cellars, uses both French and American barrels. His choice depends on the grape(s) utilized and the style he wants.
“American oak can handle grapes with big flavors, such as Zinfandel, Grenache and Teroldego,” says Tsegeletos. He says lighter varieties seem to do better in tannin-rich French oak.
One prominent California winemaker made the switch recently from partial American oak to all French.
“I always been a big fan of Bordeaux, and since Bordeaux is my benchmark, I prefer the tannins and the elegance that French oak gives me,” says Rob Davis, another Tchelistcheff devotee who’s made wine at Alexander Valley’s Jordan Vineyard & Winery since 1976. The 2015 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is the first vintage from 100% French barrels.
Vincent Nadalié runs his family’s French cooperage in Napa Valley, which produces barrels with wood from America, Slovenia and Hungary. He says that American barrels make up about 40% of his wine business, the same percentage cited by Seguin Moreau, but that “it’s slowly getting smaller.” Also, some customers want a blend of both French and American oaks, he says, with staves from one country and barrel heads from another.
Primary sources for American oak are forests in Missouri, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and nearby states. Nadalié says the differences between these sources are minimal and that buyers seldom have a preference.
“We have American barrel customers all over the United States, but most are from California,” says Nadalié. Hansen, of Seguin Moreau, says that Washington State is also a big American consumer, whereas Oregon, concentrated on the more-delicate Pinot Noir, is almost always aged in French barrels.
Historically, many Spanish winemakers have used large proportions of American barrels, especially for the red Tempranillos from Rioja.
“The classic Rioja Tempranillo [crianza] destined for shorter aging works very well with American oak,” says Matias Calleja, winemaker at Bodegas Beronia. “For wines that are aged longer, like a gran reserva, where you need to respect the fruit, we always use French oak.”
“Spanish people prefer their red wine with the sweeter character of American oak,” says Rodolfo Batista, winemaker at Ramón Bilbao. He’s increased the percentage of American barrels used in recent years.
American oak may be weightier than French oak, but it’s much lighter on the pocketbook. A French oak barrel costs about $1,000, while an American barrel is about $500. So, when an oak tree falls in an American forest, its impact is much gentler on a winery’s bottom line.