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Oak Barrels

Just reading my 1874 which arrived this morning and started to wonder about barrel making. It seems that wine barrels are made from French, American, or Slovenian oak, or at least these are the ones that get mentioned. But oak grows in many other countries - NZ, Australia, Patagonia, etc. Does oak from other countries get used for making wine barrels? If not is this something to do with the quality of the oak, or more to do with the very long-term nature of developing a barrel making business?

Anybody know? This is not a pressing question, just a “reading 1874” ponder. Apparently NZ oak does, or can, grow much quicker than in Europe, so might seem a good option. Perhaps though the porosity of the fast grown oak is not suitable.

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I think they are all varieties of oak rather than countries of origin. That’s certainly true of Slovenian oak, which if I remember right grows in a number of countries in east Europe.

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“Oak” isn’t always oak. The Patagonian trees aren’t the same genus quercus as the northern hemisphere oaks, even though they may be called “oak”. If I recall, all oaks are native to either North America or Eurasia

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I think it’s actually called Slavonian Oak, which I always got confused about, but apparently it is the sort of Oak that grows in Eastern Europe, so people also call it Slovenian Oak. There was a fantastic article in last month’s Decanter about the different types of wood used in barrel fermenting/ageing - not just oak, but also Acacia, Cherry etc.

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Yes, I wondered about this but couldn’t find a very clear answer in a trawl through the Internet, but I’ve just seen an article about oak tree experiments in NZ. They include quite a variety of types of American oak. I’m sure there’s a more correct term than “type”!

Some in Rioja use Hungarian oak.

Also found this article -

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Good artice thanks. Like many subjects, it seems to have more complexities the more you look. Too late to take up oak growing or barrel making in my late 60’s I think!

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OT, but does this mean that you received a real, paper, magazine? I never received the last one (and haven’t received this), so I wondered if they were now only virtual.

I have a paper copy as well as the email.

I get the 1874 in paper as well. I don’t remember if I ticked or crossed any special box I’m afraid.

Interesting article. It however avoids the elephant in the room: PRICE.

I have no idea what a new cask costs (£500 to £1000+?) but would imagine that Eastern European is a darned sight cheaper than French or American white oak. Another issue is longevity, how long a cask will last.

Incidentally, there IS Japanese oak but it’s softer and more porous (so used with thicker staves) and has a distinctive cedar type aroma so perhaps not useful for wine

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Oak Barrel Prices

As hinted at earlier, oak barrels can get quite pricey, with French Oak barrels being the most expensive and ranging anywhere from $850 to $3600, Hungarian/Eastern European Oak barrels being the cheaper of the European options ranging from $560 to $700, and American Oak barrels being the cheapest option ranging from $360 to $500.

quoted from here

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Mmm. This article seems to point me back towards French oak barrels come from France, and American oak barrels come from America. This is where I was struggling earlier not knowing whether the nationality referred to a variety of oak, or a country of origin (or both). So when an NZ winery says its wine is aged in French oak barrels, does it mean the barrels came from France, or from French oak trees grown in NZ, or indeed somewhere else? I remain confused!

Thank you: I’ll investigate what is happening.

I’ll try and dig out the Decanter article I mentioned earlier, as it explained it very clearly. From memory - yes, American Oak (Quercus Alba) is the dominant Oak of North America. French Oak (Quercus Robur?) is the French one (doesn’t grow in the US, I don’t think). Slavonian Oak grows in Eastern Europe (Slavonia is a region of Croatia, I believe).

So in a sense yes - French oak is from France (though the Quercus Robur is also one type of English Oak), and is different in its grain and structure from the American Oak, and both differ from the Slavonian Oak. But I’ll double check the article just in case I’m talking crap…! :grimacing:

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OK… here’s some generalisation: I used to be a cabinetmaker so have an interest in the trees.

American Barrels are from American White Oak quercus alba - a very distinctive coconut aroma which can dominate, typically found in Rioja Reserva and obv. USA wines (you notice it in American barrel aged Chards).

French Casks (ideally) are from Troncais or Limousin grown quercus robur - its a darker colour compared to alba & less ‘in your face’ more spicey aromas. Expensive. Used with care in Bordeaux etc. I see no reason for Slavonian grown quercus robur not to be included if specified, fairly certain it is traditionally used in Italian wine?

Having said that… there are not that many cask manufacturers & they make casks from a WIDE range of oak, you pays your money etc. Google is your friend!

There is (I believe) a wide 2nd hand market because casks are so expensive. So hand-me-down casks are the norm.

English oak (and Welsh, Irish, Scottish) is quercus robur but doesn’t go into barrels, our oaks are far too short & bowed! because we no longer have great forests of straight trees. Blame Henry the 8th.

So… returning to thread. I have asked that the chap from MUGA might enlarge upon the subject when he does his talk sometime soon, Should be interesting.

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That sounds about right to me - that is, it is the same as my memory.

Yes, American and French oaks are rooted (sic) in those countries, but essentially they are species - it has nothing to do with terroir as far as I know, though knowing the French I bet some might beg to differ. Slavonian oak is a third type, spread through Eastern Europe.

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I was on a tour of the KWV cellars soon after democracy brought an end to international sanctions and at last they could import barrels from France.

KWV were very proud they were now using French Oak barrels

But this irritated a proud Afrikaner next to me who said KWV should be using South African oak. Oaks grow in abundance there, indeed Stellenbosch’s other name is Eikstad (meaning Oak Town) as its streets are lined with oaks.

It was explained that Cape oaks grew too fast and thus had an unsuitable loose grain, whereas cool climate oaks had a tight grain and thus less porous.

Different oaks impart different flavours, American oak is known for imparting a coconut taste. Wineries that want to make Frech style wines will use French oak barrels.

Imparting flavour is what barrels are used for, if no flavour then stainless steel is easier to clean and cheaper to buy. But barrels can only impart flavour for a few vintages, and lose some flavour year by year. Most wineries I have spoken to say 4 years is the maximum, and many buy a quarter of their barrels every year, so one quarter of the vintage is aged in new oak, one quarter in 2nd fill, one quarter in 3rd fill and one quarter in 4th fill. Barrels which have been used four times are disposed of. They do not have much resale value. Some distilleries and sherry houses use them, but you’ll often find them cut in half and sold as garden planters.

Prestigious wineries - such as those selling expensive wines - may use 100% new barrels, so sell off barrels to other wineries. I calculated a long time ago that using a French oak barrel added $1 to the cost of a bottle of wine, so when a back label of a £5 wine claims oak aging it wasn’t barrels that were used to impart the desired oak flavour, but stave, chips or powder.

The largest concentration of oak wine barrels is in Rioja where the rules for Reserva and Grand Reserva require long barrel aging. The barrel cellars there are staggering.

The largest cooper in the world is in Missouri, USA

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I have just sent a message to Mission Estate asking where their French oak barrels come from. Hopefully I will get a reply from them.

I’ll bet they come from France :smiley:

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