American Oak Barrels

History of Use

In the early history of wine making, ceramic vessels were solely used for the storage and transportation of wine. Because wood can fall subject to nature and time, tracing the history of using barrels in wine making has proven to be difficult.  In ancient Mesopotamia barrels made from palm wood were used to transport wine along the Euphrates River.  Specific properties of palm wood caused it to be a difficult material to bend and fashion into barrels.  As a result wine merchants from different regions began experimenting with different wood styles.

Historians have been able to detect that oak has been present in wine making for at least 2 millennia.  Ancient records show that oak first came into use, on a widespread basis, during the Roman Empire.  Over time, wine makers found, that along with being great for storage and transportation, the oak barrels also imparted beneficial properties that helped to improve the wine.  In some cases the barrels made the wine lighter and better tasting.  In the United States, during the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Mondavi helped to expand others’ knowledge about the different types of oak and barrel styles.

Source of Oak

As the name “American Oak” implies, the oak used for American barrel production is the Quercus alba.   This species is mostly found in the Eastern United States.  Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin also boast production of the American Oak barrel.  In the northwest of the United States, winemakers in Oregon have begun to use the Quercus garryana white oak due to its close similarities with European oak; French and Hungarian.

Properties of Oak

Oak trees used to make the barrels are typically harvested when the tree is between 80–120 years old.  The ideal conditions for growing are a cool climate in a dense forest region that allows the trees the chance to slowly mature and develop a tighter grain. The ideal conditions for harvesting are in the winter when the tree contains less sap in its trunk.  It’s typical for one tree to provide enough wood for two 59-US-gallon (220 L) barrels.

Quercus alba is a white oak species that is characterized by its relatively fast growth, wider grains and lower wood tannins. Some American coopers use the kiln-dry method to season the wood.  However, most others age/season their American oak in the exact same way as the French.

Even though the two species of oak are different, the major difference between American and French oak resides in the way the wood is prepared for use in barrel making.  Due to the grain structure of the wood, American oak may be serrated, which makes it at least twice as economical.

Effects on Wine & Advantages of Use

In general, American oak tends to have a more intense flavor than French oak.  Due to American oak having as little as 2 and as high as 4 times the amount of lactones (esters produced when acid and alcohol interact), the resulting wine has more sweet and vanilla overtones.  Therefore, winemakers typically choose American oak for bolder, more powerful reds, base wines for “assemblage,” or for warm climate Chardonnays.

American oak modestly contributes tannins to the aging process.  Based on this characteristic, most wine makers fill a barrel made from American oak with a wine with high levels of tannins and a good texture.  This allows the fruit to interact with the wood which produces a wine with an array of aromas and textures and palatable tannins.  American oak also allows for more pronounced oxidation which results in a quicker release of aromas helping wines to lose their astringency and harshness faster.  This further increases the value of American oak because it shortens the maturation period.


About americanwinegrape

American Wine Grape Distributors Inc. AKA A. Silvestro Wine Grape, has been in business for over 5 decades. We are wine enthusiasts just like you and want to share in that enjoyment. This is why we are developing a new and exciting platform for growers, restaurants, sommeliers and home winemakers. Our goal is to bring the wine community together and is the driving force behind our new blog.

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