A few years ago I read where the wine buyer for a major big box company said, “Wine is just a beverage”. The comment was in response to the fact that the buyer being interviewed did not have wine buying experience. In fact, previously she was an electronics buyer for the company. Even wine drinkers at some point in their wine experiences are intrigued about the complexity of making good wine at any price point; it’s the mystery of wine. I have been guilty on occasion of saying; I almost would rather smell the aromas than drink the wine. Even something seemingly as simple as a cork, tends to constantly undergo new findings about its character. As an aside, cork is from a species of the oak tree. Whether a person is infatuated with wine or not, a casual experience with the product will leave most people amazed about how profoundly complex it is to make good wine; and that too means it is not just a beverage.
We all notice the bottle, cork, label and then finally the wine; we rarely think much about what it is that made our favorite wine our favorite. Maybe, just maybe we ought to think about the oak tree. The oak tree, specifically the white oak; French and American, gives wine its mouth feel, aromas, color and flavor. Barrels replaced animal skins for wine about 1,500 years ago. Oak, as a preferred barrel source, is only 1,400 years old. Steve Mayes notes that closed wood containers came into being about 900-800 BC and in the first century BC wine was stored in wood barrels (not necessarily oak and white oak in particular).
Most believe white oak for wine storage and aging was a happenstance discovery. As wine making processes were being discovered then refined and studied, it was probably at some point winemakers realized that a certain oak imbued characteristics in wine (red wine in particular) that were appreciated, respected and mystical. Paraphrasing a corporate tagline-The world got better wine through chemistry!
Nonetheless, White oak as a winemaking tool is complex and involves science, research, engineering and agriculture. A high quality oak barrel can make up $6.60 of the cost of the bottle of fine wine to the winery. (French Oak is the most expensive at approximately $500 to $750 per barrel.) The barrel better be good because the wine sits in that barrel from 1 to 2 years; depending on what the winemaker is trying to accomplish with the oak. Length of time aging is a function of: varietal wine, the oak of origin being used (France, America, and Hungary), curing methods, toasting method and the desired textures flavors, aromas of the finished wine.
I spent many of my formative years in Salem, MO. As some folks say, Salem may not be the edge of the earth but you sure can see the edge from there. I love Salem and the totality of the Ozark’s region where white oak is prolific. Other than being the Gateway to the Ozark’s; Salem produces the finest white oak for wine and whiskey barrels in America. As a young boy I can remember seeing stacks of white oak wood, over the course of 2.5-3 years of curing, that stack of wood would become barrel staves; mostly for whiskey in those days. Since the 50’s much more has been discovered about the science of oak when coming in contact with wine; UC Davis and Iowa State University have been active in oak research, not to mention the cooperage companies doing their own research on oak barrels.
A few years ago I did a story featuring a guy who sold wine barrels for Demptos Cooperage in Napa, CA. In one conversation we had he said he was leaving town to visit an oak vendor in Salem, MO. I was shocked to hear him say that and I related the story about my early years growing up in Salem, MO. He was shocked to hear I was familiar with Salem and he went on to say many wineries in the U.S., Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia requested barrels Demptos made using Missouri white oak. I found out from him, that oak from France is different from Missouri oak and even oak from Minnesota and the Appalachian’s; all terroir’s specific to oak.
Other companies like TW Boswell, Nadalié, make and ship finished barrels all over the world. With barrels being shipped to wineries all over the world, it is easy to deduce- White Oak should be in short supply. No so; in fact only about 3-5 percent of White Oak harvested in America is used for barrels (whiskey and wine). The White Oak harvested for wine barrels in the Eastern half of the U.S. come from trees that are approximately 125 years old. However, it is economically feasible to harvest White Oak that is 60-200 years old. In the logging industry there is such a thing as a tree being too young or too old for good wood texture. The good thing in America is that the White Oak is so ubiquitous it does not require intensive forest management because of the proliferation in seedlings sprouting once a stand of oak has been thinned out.
In France they have very strong regulations for forest management that date back to the 1200’s. “An ironic aside: of all the wonderful wood harvested, 90 percent becomes furniture and other products. The remaining 10 percent goes to barrels,” commented Dr. Tom Cottrell about French White Oak. “The differences in American White Oak and French White Oak are: French Oak contributes to mid-palate or mouth feel of wines and subtly to the nose, while American oak barrels contribute strongly to the aromatics of wine and more subtly to the mouth feel.” In general, the overall benefit of oak is that it is a strong wood that grows straight, which is critical to good quality staves. In addition, the structure of white oak with “tyloses” makes the staves liquid/wine tight. A characteristic of only American Oak. More on tyloses follows.
Dr. Murli Dharmadhikai of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute summarizes the benefits of flavoring compounds of oak as: “many oak derived compounds contribute to the flavor of wines aged in a barrel. Some of these compounds are present in harvested timber and others are formed during the seasoning and toasting of barrels.” Some flavoring compounds: phenols, carbohydrate degradation from toasting the oak, oak lactones also from toasting gives woody aromas, and wood tannins help give wine a pleasant mouth feel. (Oak tannins are not to be confused with the tannins in grapes.) Silver Kiddush Cups