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What you should know before buying barrels.


In 1989 an estimated 55,000 French oak barrels and 35,000 American oak barrels were sold to the U.S. wine industry at an average price of $430 per French oak barrel and from $160 to $220 per American oak barrel. Are these figures justified by the barrels' inherent flavors, French oak's soft vanillin and American oak's dill with a more pronounced oak aroma? Or are they justified by the basic differences in wood, coopering techniques and market demand? This article will not only prove the latter but also that 1) just because it's French doesn't mean the price is inflated; 2) American barrels aren't bourbon barrels in disguise; and 3) American oak is bound to compete more fiercely with French oak in the 1990s.

Before moving on, two points need to be put into perspective. First, the bourbon industry is far more important than the wine barrel business for most American coopers. In 1989 an estimated 900,000 bourbon barrels were made for the domestic and world spirit industry; wine barrels make up for only 2-3% of the American barrel industry. However, times are changing and today American coopers see a future potential for wine barrels. Until recently, most American wine barrels were basically bourbon barrels without toast; today they are fashioned more and more after the French. Second, the French already have a long wine barrel tradition behind them. As we all know, it takes time to develop the "perfect recipe. " A technical comparison of French and American cooperage oak will show just why the 2 different species produce 2 different results.

The species of white oak for cooperage in France is Quercus sessilis or pedunculata and Quercus robur, and in the U.S. is Quercus alba.

The average age of French oak for barrel making is between 120-150 years and tree selection is strictly controlled by the Department des Eaux et des Forets. Prior to 1980 there were only two appellations in France, Limousin and Nevers or "Center of France." Today there are 5 forest appellations: Limousin, Allier (with the Troncais sub-appellation), Nevers, Vosges and Bourgogne. Each forest is known for a specific grain type: Limousin for open grain, best suited for Cognac and distilled spirits; Nevers and Bourgogne for medium grain; and Allier, Troncais and Vosges for tight grain. It is believed that the 5 appellations were developed for the American market that demanded more specific information concerning wood origin. Jacques Billon, French cooper and forest appellation promoter, points out: "after all, where is the

Center of France'? It could be as small as I tree or 10 Mi.2 in size. It's like asking for a wine from Northern California'."

American white oak is cut at an average age of 60 years, having a growth rate twice as fast as the French species. No strict government controls exist as yet for tree selection. Forest appellation and subsequent grain type aren't used for American oak; it is generally agreed that since the bourbon industry controls the market not as much origin information is necessary. However, American cooperages and stavemill owners interviewed agreed that the forests of Missouri, Kentucky and Arkansas produced the best "Northern hardwood" for cooperage purposes. According to Leroy Cardwell, stavemill owner in Novelty, Missouri, the wood of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas is the preferred, being softer and easier to work; white oak from the "Deep South" contains too much sap and large age rings and white oak from Wisconsin and Minnesota is too hard. Uroy MeGinnis, stavemill and cooperage owner from Cuba, Missouri believes that Southern Missouri has the best wood because the trees grow more slowly (20 rings per ") and there are more extractable phenols in the wood. D.L. Andrews of A&K Cooperage in Higbee, Missouri believes that Northern Missouri oak is the best, because of the tighter grain resulting from colder weather.

Tonnellerie Francaise is currently experimenting with Oregon white oak, Quercus geriana and Quercus garryana, that comes from the foothills around the Willamette Valley. 50 oak barrels have been divided among 10 California wineries and 8 Oregonian wineries for the'90 vintage and, with University of Washington and UC Davis involvement, fl% is the first valid experiment of its kind. Cumulative results will be available in May 91. According to Duane Wall of Tonnellerie Francaise, "if Oregon oak is an interesting product, it will generate an American appellation thought process, that for the present has not been commercially developed as in France. "

Cooperage oak contains tyloses that act to "plug" the wood's vessels and prevent porosity. French and American white oak contain different amounts of tyloses, and this structural difference affects the preparation of these 2 woods.

French white oak contains a small percentage of tyloses and has to be hand-split so that the vessels remain parallel to the stave's surface. A tree to be hand-split has to have the vessels (or grain) straight from the top to the bottom, with no knots, branches or defects. During the labor intensive hand-splitting operation only 21-23% of the tree will provide staves and the rest is rejected; one reason for the cost difference between French and American oak to be discussed later. American white oak contains a very high percentage of tyloses in comparison to French oak and, being denser, the tyloses are more concentrated. It is for this reason that American oak can be machine sawn without porosity problems during preparation. Tree selection is less severe, making more trees available, and 50-55% of the tree will provide staves.

Both woods need to be "seasoned" prior to barrel crafting. The green wood's moisture content needs to be reduced to 14-16% humidity before bending the staves into a barrel: air drying, kiln drying, or both, are the employed methods. 100% air drying is the preferred to bleach out" the bitter sap instead of "baking it in" by kiln drying. 5 millimeters of each stave's side is dried a year and a 30 millimeter stave is completely air dried in 3 years. Given that wine penetrates 4-5 millimeters during the life of the barrel, 2 years is advisable for air drying. Climate influences the whole process and, contrary to how it sounds, the more rain to bleach out the wood, the faster the air-drying process. 2 to 3 years has been customary in France, but the worldwide French barrel demand has reduced the period to 18 to 24 months for wine barrels. 10 to 12 months is standard for American oak; it is believed that machine-sawn wood bleaches out faster because of more cross-grain exposure. Some American cooperage, influenced by the bourbon industry, kiln dry close to 100% for a faster economic return. As aforementioned, the best seasoning method is 100% air dry, but one can guess how much wood is completely air dried with today's inexhaustable barrel demand.

To form the barrel French tradition calls for bending the stave over an open fire. Today more American coopers follow suit, but the majority of American wine barrels are fashioned after bourbon barrels, bent over steam or dipped into warm water. One drawback of this method is that the still moist wood can lock in a smokey flavor during subsequent charring. Another problem is that the wood's flavors are dissolved; this can have a positive or negative effect, depending on the wood and the wine. One well-known barrel salesman compares barrels to a teabag: the more you leave it in contact with water or wine, the more flavor you lose until the barrels are neutral.

Different toast levels depend on the cooper's technique and the customer's request. The aim is to penetrate the wood from 3-5 millimeters corresponding to the wine's penetration in the wood during the barrel's life), and to extract sought-after flavors in the wood that will affect the wine's complexity. 40-45 minutes over prolonged heat by small fires is maintained by certain French coopers, but the time can vary from 15-50 minutes. Wood fire or propane is used as a heat source by American coopers and toasting times vary from 12 minutes (patterned after bourbon barrels) to 45 minutes (influenced by French tradition). As per the customer's request in both French and American wine barrels, toasting levels range from light to heavy and include the intermediate levels. But, as a general rule, such custom--made barrels are easier to obtain from small cooperages. According to Duane Wall of Tonnellerie Francaise, "where American cooperages fall short is in the toasting process, but that significantly affects the price. "

The sealing of the head and the stave in France is made with a paste," a mixture of ash, flour and water. American coopers have traditionally used parafin for bourbon barrels, but some coopers have also started to use a paste (e.g. A&K Cooperage, Canton Wood Products, Tonnellerie Francaise) so that the winemaker can use warm water or steam to clean the wine barrels.

French wine barrels generally have a more finished" cosmetic look, inside and out, than American wine barrels. This is due to the fact that the majority of oak barrels manufactured in the U.S. is for domestic and world spirit maturation where cosmetics is not a big concern. However, in response to customer demand for wine barrels cosmetics a more finished "fancy" barrel is offered at a nominal price difference.

The price is probably the most striking difference between French and American oak barrels. In 1990 French barrels cost an average $500 and American barrels between 140-$220. Americans oftentimes conclude that, because it is French, the price has to be inflated. The cost breakdown disproves this general notion. (See diagram.)

French oak is approximately four times more expensive than American oak, a difference influenced by more tree selection, a longer air-drying period and a 12% annual increase in oak prices. On top of that, three times more labor is needed to make French barrels and the weakening of the dollar (50% since 1986) makes French barrels all the more expensive. American oak, on the other hand, as a base material, is less expensive and tree selection is less rigid because the wood can be machine sawn. However, with the trend to fashion American wine barrels more after French wine barrels, the price will edge upwards.

The wine barrel industry, be it French or American, is responding to the improved quality of American oak barrels and to the prices of both. More attention is placed today on wine barrels by American cooperages that want a larger share in the more profitable wine barrel business, even if far fewer are produced than the bourbon barrel. According to Mike Truelove, Sales Representative for Independent Stave Company, "more people are using American oak than in past years. " The future as viewed by Mel Knox, who represents Francois Freres and Tonnellerie Taransaud, "depends on the health of the wine industry as a whole. Even with a recession good French coopers will do well but lesser quality coopers will have problems. " Vincent Bouchard, of Les Tonnelleries de Bourgogne, feels that "customers need wood flavors to impart into certain wines. Winemakers all over the world know that barrels and their different tannins are good for the wine's evolution. Even with the increased French wine barrel prices, there will always be a market for French oak, and a good beginning for high-quality American oak. " But then, what's the price difference in the finished bottle of wine on the shelf of the wine store?

(A special thanks to those not mentioned in the article who helped in its preparation: Blue Grass Cooperage; Alain Fouquet of Sequin Moreau; Bill Weil of Canton Wood Products; Henry Work of Barrel Buikfts; and many winernakers for their valid opinions. And, even though mentioned in the article, thanks also to Vincent Bouchard for his endless information.)
     Kimberly Harrington, who operates
   TransAtlantic Wine Marketing in the
   south of France, will begin sending in
   reports on the wine export scene as of our
   May issue.
     She has sold for a distributor in
   Washington, D.C., with Chambers and
   Chambers Wine Merchants in San Francisco
   and was a marketing consultant for
   Champagne Nicolas Feuiflatte in Epernay
   prior to opening her own firm in
   France in 1989.
     Harrington can be reached at 34, Rue
   des Tamaris, 34130 Mauguio, France;
   phone (33) 67-29-29-39, fax (33)
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Title Annotation:American and French oak barrels for the wine industry
Author:Steffey, Kay
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Just what is 'terroir,' anyway?
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