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American oak not inferior to French

A Rioja masterclass in London proved that, despite the greater expense, French oak doesn’t always give better results than American barrels. 

The wines aged in American oak are just as good as those matured in French barrels according to Beronia’s head winemaker, Matías Calleja

During an event organised by the drinks business in July called “The Building Blocks of Rioja”, a tasting was conducted by Beronia’s head winemaker Matías Calleja to highlight the effect of two different sources of wood on the same wine.

One sample contained a Rioja Reserva from the 2011 vintage which had spent 10 months in 100% American oak, while another was exactly the same except it had been aged for an identical period in 100% French oak.

After both wines had been tasted, the 50 attendees – comprising key decision makers in the London on- and off-trade – were asked whether they preferred the Rioja aged in US or French oak.

Following a quick count of the number of raised hands for each wine, it was apparent that the wine aged in French oak had received more votes, although it was only by a very small margin.

Commenting on the two wines, Calleja said that the French oak had given the wine a touch more flavour after 10 months than the American oak, which had imparted more tannin to the wine.

“It takes longer to achieve a rounder wine in American oak,” he explained, stressing that these were cask samples, and with a little more time in barrel, the results with American oak are just as good as those achieved from French oak.

Matías Calleja has worked for Beronia for over 30 years

Following this experiment, Calleja invited attendees to taste Beronia’s current Rioja Reserva release, which was from the 2008 vintage, and aged for 18 months in barrels with French oak staves and American oak heads, using a blend of 92% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano.

Explaining the reason for using two different sources of oak for each barrel, rather than simply ageing some of his Riojas in American oak, and a portion in French, before blending the results, Calleja said, “For French oak we must use split oak staves but for the heads we can use cut American oak, which is much better in terms of sustainability, and this is very important when I see the forest I have in my winery – we have 30,000 barrels.”

As for the costs of these specialist barrels, Calleja said a mixed barrel cost around €480 to buy, and was 15% more expensive than American oak barrel, but 20% cheaper than the French.

Speaking more generally about the influence of oak on wine, Calleja offered this advice: “It is very important for the winemaker to master their knowledge of oak and everything it does to their wine, and the American oak typically brings more toast, vanilla, coconut and chocolate flavours, while French oak will introduce some vanilla but also spices such as pepper and cinnamon.”

Acknowledging that the source nation was just one variable, he explained how oak will vary according to where it is grown within each country, as well as within any particular forest – for example, whether it’s on the edge of a plantation or within the interior.

He even said that character of the wood would vary according to where it was taken from within the tree’s trunk. “The wood at the exterior is not the same as the wood in the interior, which is older and drier,” he commented.

The masterclass was restricted to 50 and held at London’s Westbury Hotel

Calleja also talked about the importance of the size of grain and the impact of the barrel toasting regime, before briefly mentioning the vital role of wood seasoning, discussing the impact of method – kiln or air-dried – as well as where the staves are stored.

“If the seasoning is closer to the sea then the staves can have a salty character,” he recorded, noting that this will be accentuated among the staves on the outside of stacks.

Elsewhere, Paul Draper of California’s Ridge Vineyards, has always promoted the quality of correctly seasoned US oak, and uses American barrels to age his flagship wine Monte Bello.

Speaking to db earlier this year, he explained, “If you air dry American oak for two to three years and then cooper it correctly you should have something as good if not better than French oak.”

As a control to continually test his preference, since 1970 Draper has put 3% of Monte Bello’s annual production into French oak from two or three of the finest coopers to see how it performs, with regular comparative blind tastings. “In blind tastings of Monte Bello with MWs and other expert tasters we have virtually never had anyone say they identify the oak as American,” he recorded.

To read more about Paul Draper’s views on oak click here, while a full report on the Rioja masterclass can be seen in the August edition of the drinks business.

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