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Oct 20, 2008 09:56 AM

Differences in oaks

I just came back from a wine festival in Va and I now have this nagging question that no one from the wine festival could answer...What is the differences between oaks. For example what makes french oak different than american or "fill-in-the-name-of your-state-here" oak? Is the diffenece that huge or is it subtle things? What are the differences in flavor and texture? Any help would be greatly appreciated so I can educate some of the wait staff at the restaurant that I work at, they have the same nagging question now.

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  1. >>> Is the diffenece that huge or is it subtle things? <<<

    Yes. It's nothing so simple as black-and-white.

    What is the different between a 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet made by, say, Cakebread, and a 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet made by Beaulieu? And what's the difference between both of those, and a 2005 Cabernet made by Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains? And between those three and a 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet made by Quilceda Creek? And how are all five of those different than, say, a 2005 Chateau Latour?

    Not only do you have different climates and soil in which the oak TREES are grown (creating differences in the "raw material" just like climate and terroir affect wine grapes), but you also have different coopers utilizing varied techniques to produce the barrels!

    17 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      I recently came across an interesting offering from a winery in Northern California that also either owns or has an interest in a cooperage in Hungary. There's a link to their site below, but it doesn't seem to mention a special bottling I know they've done of the exact same juice aged in 4 or 5 different barrels, each from a different forest source (all in Hungary, I think). I believe it may only be available to their club members, but it has to be a very interesting tasting to do. The wines are Cabernet from Obsidian Ridge, in Lake County, CA, from a vineyard that is adjacent to one farmed by the Beckstoffer family of Napa Cab fame.


      1. re: Midlife

        Hungary, Slovenia, Slavonia, and Russia all produce oak wine barrels.
        Here in the US, Missouri, Kentucky --and most promisingly -- Oregon are producing barrels. Each oak variety -- quercus alba (American), quercus garryana (Oregon), quercus petraea (French), etc. -- imparts specific flavors to the wine.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          Canton Cooperage used to place identifying "name plates" on the front of their barrels, defining their barrels as "Cumberland Gap," "Northern Appalachian," etc., rather than using states. Never caught on . . .

          But you are quite right in pointing out that "Oregon" oak in INDEED a completely different species than "American" oak. Also, the Chinese are producing oak barrels, too . . .

          FURTHERMORE, not all wood used in making barrels/casks is oak. Redwood, chestnut, mahogony and other woods have and continue to be used as well.

          1. re: zin1953

            Redwood! Wow, that must leave some flavor. I suppose Zin aged in redwood barrels would be about as California a wine as you could get ... is it any good? Or rather, can you recommend a redwood-aged wine that's worth trying?

            (I have two visitors coming in soon from the West Coast, so I'm starting to think about what I want them to carry over)

            1. re: tmso

              Historically, one used the local wood . . . in California, that would be redwood. In the Rhône, it was often chestnut, for example, and in Portugal, it was often mahogony (from their colonies in Africa).

              A visitor to many first- and second-wave wineries in Napa and Sonoma will see lots of redwood tanks. The key is "tanks," not "barrels." Redwood is typically made into large, vertical tanks, ranging in size from 3,000 to 100,000+ gallon capacity.

              1. re: zin1953

                These are the redwood tanks that were used at what is now Sobon Estate in Amador County. They were used by reasonably well-known winemakers of Italian descent. Up until the 1970s you'd show up with your own gallon jugs and let them fill them up with wine for you.
                Obviously the wood was neutral when they used them to make wine.

              2. re: tmso

                Redwood, or split-leaf eucalyptus! Talk about "mint" notes...


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  I *think* I remember something about a eucalyptus barrel being toxic (not to mention too knotty), but -- as you know -- that "menthol-eucalyptus" notes DOES come from the trees . . .

                  1. re: zin1953

                    One eucalyptus tree in the middle of a vineyard makes a pronounced effect on the wine. Eucalyptus and wine really don't go together.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      >>> Eucalyptus and wine really don't go together. <<<

                      Except to all those people who like Martha's Vineyard, Johnson-Turnbull, or a number of Aussie wines I can think of . . . .


                      1. re: zin1953

                        I guess it's how big a presence the eucalyptus is.

                        You can have many lots of wine, and the one lot that comes from the vineyard with the eucalyptus tree (or trees) is demonstrably obvious. As a winemaker, you really have to work around it -- have loads of other non-eucalyptus-affected wine to blend in so that the final wine blend doesn't reek of eucalyptus -- instead, there's just has a hint of it, which is nice.

                        1. re: maria lorraine


                          Am I the ONLY person, who likes the mint? On my home golf course, we have Eucalyptus trees around many of the holes. While waiting for my partners to hit, I'll grab a leaf and crush it, just to inhale the aroma. Now, we are NOT drinking wine on the course, unless we stopped by my cellar at #9 and picked up a Sauvignon Blanc, or two.


                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            When I worked with Johnson Turnbull back in the 1980s, they would harvest (and keep separate) the first 10 rows of Cabernet in the vineyard -- those closest to the eucalyptus wind break -- from the second 10 rows, and those from the rest. That eucalytus/mint/menthol quality was so intense as to be undrinkable in the first lot; "doable" inthe second; and virtually non-existent in the rest.

                            That first batch was, metaphorically, great "concentrate" to add a touch of that quality into other wines . . .

                        2. re: maria lorraine

                          A friend of mine was at a Napa tasting room (Frank Family, I think) and said he noticed Eucalypyus in the Cab. The winery staffer walked him outside and pointed down the side of one vineyard block to a stand of Eucalyptus trees. All those flavors and aromas have their ways of getting into the wine somehow. Euc seems to be one of the more obvious direct-affect situations of proximity. I guess there are differing opinions on that, but the winery guy was certain.

                          1. re: Midlife

                            The eucalyptus flavor effect comes from tiny airborne droplets of oil that get deposited on the grapes.

                            1. re: Midlife

                              ML is spot on; it's airborne droplets of oil from the trees . . . UNLESS you are running the sort of "experiments" that a friend of mine ran, but on a commercial scale.

                          2. re: zin1953

                            You know, I've had that discussion with several winemakers. Some (usually the ones, who lost their source with those notes) claim that the "menthol-eucalyptus" notes do NOT come from having the trees around the vineyard, but are elements "created" in the blending and fermentation. Menthol chips? Others (mostly those who own properties surrounded by eucalyptus trees) claim that the notes come from their particular vineyards. Who do I believe?

                            I do know that those notes disappeared from the Silver Oak Napa, when they lost the Milat vineyard as a source. I also recognize some of those same notes, in the Milat Napa Cab. Hm-m-m?

                            I do hope that you realize that I was typing in jest, regarding barrels from a Cut-leaf Eucalyptus tree... Hey, let's try Black Walnut next.


              3. You can even be more radical and ask "Why oak?"
                Here's what happens then:

                1 Reply
                1. re: RicRios

                  "Oak," in and of itself, is NOT the problem. It is TOO MUCH oak that is the problem.

                  Think of winemaking as cooking. If the first thing you taste in, say, the chicken soup is salt, I'd say the chef used too much. But, OTOH, if the chef did not use any salt at all, you, I, and most everyone else would think something was missing. We might not be able to put a finger on it, but something would be lacking.

                  Wine ages in oak in a way that it does not in stainless steel, glass, or other containers. Wine ages even in OLD oak, as well as new and everything inbetween. But in new barrels, the wine ALSO picks up flavor from the oak. Adding flavorfrom oak is not the same as aging the wine in oak.

                  Two different things.

                2. There's big differences between oak from different forests in the same country. And it matters how much it is toasted. This was driven home in this tasting, where the Freeman had much less new oak than the Varner but tasted way oakier.
                  I guess fruit can have something to do with that, too.
                  And to really complicate things, wines can be oaky in their youth but as they age the oak becomes integrated and you don't notice it as much. Not all oak integrates the same.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: SteveTimko

                    While at Storrs Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, we would -- every year -- make several different single-vineyard Chardonnays, all from various vineyards within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Each of the vineyards went through approximately the SAME oak regimen, in terms of the percentage of new oak used, the origin (forests) of the barrels, the coopers who made them, barrel-fermentation, time on the lees, battonage, etc., etc.

                    EVERY year, the Beauregard Ranch Chardonnay would be MUCH oakier than the Meyley Vineyard, less than half a mile away. Indeed, the levels of "detectable" oak varied widely between the diffeent wines, even though all were bottled during the same two-day period and spend the same number of months in oak.

                  2. Winemakers will put a vintage in 3, 4, 5 or more different types of oak barrels; new oak - twice or more used oak, and from France, US, and East European coopers (even Canadian oak) + add in toasting levels... Then when it comes time for bottling, they will mix; each oak adds it's own special texture to the finished product.
                    Now after interviewing scads (that's a technical term) of winemakers each has his/her own theories on what the barrels bring and how they bring it.
                    No two are the same - barrels or winemakers.


                    2 Replies
                    1. re: legourmettv

                      Just to be clear . . .

                      >>> Winemakers will put a vintage in 3, 4, 5 or more different types of oak barrels . . . <<<

                      Not ALL winemakers do this, but it is quite common. Each winemaker has his or her own personal preferences as to which barrel is best for which wine; what the correct ratio is between new, second use, third use, and older barrels; which cooperage (or mix of different cooperages) is best for this, as opposed to that, wine; etc., etc., etc. -- just as each chef has his or her own preferred combination of spices and/or preparation, technique, cooking method . . . .

                      1. re: zin1953

                        >>> Winemakers will put a vintage in 3, 4, 5 or more different types of oak barrels . . . <<<
                        Yes I didn't mean to imply that all wine was handled this way...


                    2. Different oaks create different flavor nuances and subtleties.The flavors of French oak are probably most prized because of the specific flavors they impart to wine. The best known is vanillin, the same molecule as natural vanilla, but there are others: spicy flavors, especially clove (eugenol); cinnamon and nutmeg (both eugenols and lactones); cedar and pine (lactones); and smokiness (guaiacol).

                      Caramel and butterscotch (furfurals) are the result of toasting or caramelizing the wood on the interior of the barrel, and the degree of toasting — light, medium, dark — changes the flavor of the wine, in the same way that the flavor of bread changes the darker it is toasted. (But caramel and butterscotch flavors in a wine can also be caused by residual sugar or ethyl alcohol, so those flavors don't always come from oak.)

                      The oak from each of the most famous French forests -- Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers – imparts a specific flavor profile. Chateau Margaux, for example, uses a specific oak that no other winery uses. So if your nose can detect the subtleties of Bordeaux, Margaux is easy to pick out at a blind tasting because of its singular oak smell and taste.

                      The effect of American oak (though coopers have made tremendous advances) is stronger and harsher on wine than French oak so its use requires a delicate touch. The flavor profile is different from French oak as well – vanilla (but slightly different from the French oak vanilla), coconut (a lactone) and smokiness. The subtle smell of coconut in wine is usually a dead giveaway the oak is American.

                      Just as zin1953 (Jason) says above, the age of the barrel also determines what flavors are leached into the wine. New oak imparts more oak flavors than second- or third-year oak barrels, but new isn't always better. New oak can be overpowering, especially to some wines. For that reason, many winemakers use a blend of new oak, second-year oak (for the lactones that you don’t get the first year), and third-year oak when they age a wine.

                      After three years of use, a typical oak barrel no longer imparts flavors/aromas to wine but is still an excellent storage vessel. Usually in the US, the "spent" barrel is sold to another winery or taken to a cooperage where the interior of the barrel is shaved to expose a fresh layer of oak, and re-toasted. But in Europe, you often see very large Slavonian oak barrels called botti to store wine. These are usually rather old and impart no flavor -- called "neutral" -- and they look quite beautiful in the caves.

                      Too much oak is one of the most common winemaking errors. The winemaker has to have a deft touch. Before the oak is resolved -- and that can take anywhere from two to 15 years -- the wine tastes smoky or harsh, and the fruit is diminished. Too much oak or the wrong kind of oak for a particular wine, and the winemaker can easily kill the wine (oenocide) or diminish its appeal. I’ve seen winemakers use too much oak for a wine that’s meant to be drunk shortly after release, to the dismay of both brand managers and customers. And I've also tasted wine that was so overoaked that the wine never recovered even after years and years of aging.

                      Sometimes using no oak whatsoever is best. Not at all wines should have or need oak.
                      Stainless steel (INOX) may be all a white wine needs.