American Oak........couple of questions

Reading a Decanter Panel Tasting on 2004 Rioja (April 09) something hit me:

Why are American Oak barrels when used in Rioja, for the most part, lauded for contributing to “elegant, subdued, understated,” wines but when the same barrels are used in California and/or Australia the wines are more “over the top, in your face, monstruous, etc.”? Is it all the fruit’s fault? Is it the toast on the barrels themselves?

Is it the people trying to sell their wines the ones making these claims?

Mostly critics I guess.

I don’t think it’s the oak that makes one set of wines subtle and elegant and the other set over the top. Put the same CA and OZ wines in French oak and they’ll still have the same alcohol and ripeness. Ditto the Riojas.

When speaking about oak regimens, nearly every winemaker refers to it as a “spice rack” of options. I’ve always taken this literally - that they use oak for their respective wines like a chef would use different spices for various dishes. So, my impression is that Hungarian, French, American, Russian, each impart different qualities to a given variety – all subjectively, of course.

Great question. I’ve had a number of California reds in the past few years that taste like they were aged in used bourbon casks. I haven’t noticed this in traditional Riojas.

Though one difference that comes to mind is that traditional Riojas, at lease the ones that see a lot of wood, aren’t released young. Perhaps the time allows the oak to integrate more? Still, the pronounced and downright nasty oak in some California wines would seem impervious to time.

Whenever a winemaker jumps in here, I have another part of the puzzle I would like totally explained.

A winemaker was describing his techniques and said “dirty wine and clean wine have totally different reactions to oak.” I’m taking it that he is talking about wine that has been completely settled out and/or filtered as opposed to wine still going through fermentation and shortly thereafter.

A.18-19th century TransAtlantic trade started the tradition.
B. Sherry Business(very affordable back then and still is)
C. Tempranillo, and Garnacha have no personality on their own. Skins are too thin and need a little “Wholey Oak” to impart some character.


Great question.
I think American oak is more stylistic than bombastic.

Think Silver OAK

Hey, Josh, obviously point C is a matter of opinion or (fact! as far as the varieties are concerned), but when you look into the characteristics of those two grape varieties and (do your research), you will know what I am saying. When is the last time you have tasted freshly unoaked tempranillo(or have you), how about freshly fermented garnacha(indigenous to Spain and not France). Do you know the characteristics of the skins or ripening cycle, or how about Ph levels. These wines need massive American oak to give them something to talk about.
When I go back to Spain this fall for harvest, I’ll be sure to ask you to tag along with me so that we can both leave a little smarter. Cheers!

That is not the usual American Oak Mike. Much American Oak comes from forrests in the North Central areas of America.
Silver Plonk uses oak from a specific grove owned by Ray Duncan (the owner) in Missouri. He might as well be making Kosher pickles with that crap.

Can’t speak to how Garnacha and Tempranillo do in Spain without “massive American oak” but in California they definitely do not need it. I much prefer California Grenache with little or no new oak to cover up what the fruit has to offer. And especially keep the American oak away from my Grenache! [berserker.gif]

You nailed it Ken, and to hop back to Jorge, Grenache and Tempranillo happen to fully ripen in certain parts of California, and not in Spain(except for Priorat)
They dont need any American oak at all. Just a little refinement in neutral large barrel(that happens to be an opinion by the way(Wink)) I agree, keep the oak away from Cali Grenache

There’s a lot of possible responses here.

  1. Riojan handling of American oak, traditionally, has involved large holdings of barrels and extended ageing (in barrel and in bottle) for most tiers of their tempranillo. This has not really been a story of short barrel cycles in high toast American oak.
  2. Joven tempranillo is the obvious exception here, and for my tastes disproves suggestions that tempranillo and grenache need American oak to have anything to say.
  3. There is clearly differences between Riojan tempranillo, graciano, carinena etc fruit (not forgetting that Rioja itself has the diversity of Alta, Alavesa and Baja zones) and the American oaked Australian wines you may have encountered, based on shiraz, cabernet, malbec etc.
  4. Australian sourcing and handling of American oak is a pretty diverse set of practices (including toast levels, toasting ends or not, shaving, barrel size, domestic coopered or not, where aged and for how long etc) - with current fashion being to dial down the coconut and high toast attributes, and/or use more French oak (and French coopered French) in the mix.
  5. American oak has been getting better - the gap between best American grain/quality (at least what the best suppliers here can source) and French has narrowed somewhat.
  6. Critical fashion may also have something to say here.

Lots more I could say (we grow tempranillo and I try and keep up with Australian examples of Spanish varieties, plus Spanish ones).

Obviously, my first post here was a bit sarcarstic. Wait…me, being sarcastic? Say it ain’t so!!!

OK, here is my limited experience, such as it is:

  1. As a rule, our Zins do best in American and Hungarian oak. Traditionally, that is what Zin does best in. Why? Well, Zin tends to be kind of over the top, and so is American Oak. It tends to have more of the sweet coconutty whiskey lactones that American oak is known for. Put something like that together with a reserved Pinot, and well, it might not work so well, especially if you left it in for more than, maybe 2 months.
  2. French oak tends to be tighter grained and takes a much longer extraction time for the flavors to come through. More vanilla, less coconut/fruity. Especially if you keep your wines in French oak for a year or less, you may not get much oak notes on the wine at all. I have had American Pinots that had been on 100% new French oak, and they tasted NOT oaky at all.
  3. Toast levels have a great influence on the barrel. Not only that, but you can get different combinations of barrels. We have been getting more and more American oak barrels with toasted French oak heads for our Zins. The toasted French oak heads seem to lend a nice pumkin pie spice (the Vicard) note to the wines.
    There are just so many variables that it is almost impossible to describle.

We have LOTS of delicious Tempranillo & Garnacha that have never seen ANY oak and are guaranteed crowd favorites. And those Garnacha based rosados are just insane (particularly for the money).

I understand Linda. I for one prefer the ladies in my life in a french negligee. American negligees tend to be so slutty. I do admire the wood I get from both though. [winner.gif] [whistle.gif] [bow.gif]


Fantastic points all. A clarification, if you may, wouldn’t the extended oak exposure in the Riojas lead to a more pronounced wood character? I mean, we are talking about wines (in the case of Gran Reservas) that spend 24 months in new barrels. True, I don’t know the sizes of said barrels, but you’d expect that with that much time in contact with the wood you’d get a stronger prescence than in wines that spend a year or so instead.

Jorge, I’ve not spent time in Riojan bodega, but my understanding is that:

  • there is a visible profile of wood in aged Riojan reds
  • that profile often dials back the primary fruit
  • yep, two years in new oak can be a whack of oak flavour but the total aging time (in wood and then in bottle) prior to release then backs off some of that oak character.

That said, my Spanish preferences tend to be more for Crianza and Reserva wines, rather than Gran Riserva gear.