Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ask the Winemaker with Pinnacle Ridge - American vs. French oak barrels

Josh E. from Bethlehem, PA writes: “I enjoyed reading about the origin of oak barrels. Can you tell your readers why you choose American over French oak barrels for example or vise versa?”

Answer from Brad Knapp, Owner, Pinnacle Ridge Winery:
Where a barrel comes from strongly affects the flavors that the barrel is able to impart to wine in the barrel.  In the United States white oak from barrels comes from several regions: Appalachia (most notably Pennsylvania), Minnesota, the northern Midwest and Missouri. The species of white oak that naturally grows in these areas is Quercus Alba and is characterized by afast growth, wide grain structure with high levels of aromatic compounds and low tannin levels. In France and Hungary (and other European countries) the most common species of white oak is Quercus Petraea characterized by a finer grain structure and lower aromatic impact on the wine and higher levels of tannins than Quercus Alba.

The origin of barrels that are widely available are American, French (also with specific choices for regions within France) and Hungarian. American oak barrels are characterized by high aromatics often described as vanilla and whiskey-like aromas. French oak barrels have lower levels of the sweet vanilla aromas and tend
to be more spice and toast driven. French barrels impart more tannins into the wine which results in a more pronounced “mouthfeel” in the wine. Hungarian barrels are similar to French barrels but often display more spiciness than French barrels.

So how does a winemaker decide what types of barrels to use for a specific wine?  Think of barrels like a cook thinks of spices.  If a chef prepares a delicate dish with a mild fish such as tilapia the selection of spices would be limited to small amounts of mild spices (salt, pepper, maybe chervil or tarragon).  Stronger spices like cayenne, cumin or oregano would probably not be used.  This is analogous to the situation with Chardonnay.  Most winemakers would select a less aromatic barrel for Chardonnay so that the fruit doesn’t
get buried by the aromatic profile of the barrel.  French oak is a common choice for Chardonnay.  French oak is a good choice for lighter reds such as Pinot Noir.  At Pinnacle Ridge we exclusively use French oak barrels for both our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

For the case of red wines that are more aromatic one can start to look at American oak as a wise choice.  We use American oak (largely sourced from Pennsylvania) for our Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin. These wines can stand up to the large aromatic impact of the American barrels.  We use Hungarian barrels for our Chambourcin Reserve for its spicy character and also for the increase in tannins.  Our Veritas has been produced and aged in predominately American barrels.

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