Wine enthusiasts everywhere know and appreciate the contribution of French oak and French-coopered barrels.
An experienced taster can, without hesitation distinguish a French-barrel aged chardonnay from another aged in American white oak.
French oak makes the wine taste more refined and fresh. The vanilla flavour is just a soupcon, and the oak functions as an enhancer to the natural taste of the grape.
Experiment- and quality-oriented winemakers everywhere age their chardonnays in French oak. Some employ both French and American oak barrels for aging, then blend both to achieve the quality they want at a price the market is willing to pay.
In France there are five regions famous for their forests: Limousin, Troncais, Nevers, Allier and Jupille.
The last 40 meter tall and 4.6-meter circumference Troncais oak tree was sold for 37,700 Euros in 2005 and will be cut in 2006 for seasoning. The tree was planted in 1665 during the reign of Lois XIV under aegis of his finance minister Colbert, also famous for the dish created in his honour called Sole Colbert.
A 200 year old tree yields 10 225-litre capacity barrels.
Barrels with forest names are a poetic French way to characterize the grain of wood. In general, valleys with fertile soil and water allow trees to grow fast, producing wide grain staves. Poor soils slow the growth, resulting in tight grain wood.
The age of the tree also plays a role. The parts of north-exposed and 100 + year old trees are preferred and specially sought by experienced winemakers interested in producing extraordinary wines. Some winemakers go as far as driving to the forest and selecting the trees they want coopers to use for their barrels.
Wood from southwestern Limousin forests have wine growth rings because conditions are right for rapid growth.
There, fast-growing oak species predominate. The French use this wood for aging their venerable cognacs.
Central France is famous for her Allier oak that grow on poor soil in climatic conditions allowing slow growth. The grain of Allier oak is tight.
Troncais is a small public forest within Allier that is used mostly by cognac houses for their best blends. Some French winemakers use Troncais for their red wines.
Nevers is referred to as medium-grain wood, whereas Troancais to the tightest grain, regardless of region of origin. Winemakers who know enough about this ask specific questions to ensure that what they buy is actually the genuine product.
Wood merchants and coopers know their local forests intimately. They know the spots where the best quality trees grow, and they know where the battles of the last century have filled otherwise healthy and beautiful trees with shrapnel rendering the wood unsuitable for barrel making.
Oak trees begin to be large enough to yield staves at the age of 50 or older. Once the tree is cut and hand-split for staves, exposing them to air for two to three years to “season”.
Kiln-dried staves are considered unsuitable for high-end wines.
Then comes the shape and size of the barrel. Large barrels as used in Piedmont (9000litres) or more, contribute very little to both texture and flavour.
Most winemakers agree that the best size for aging barrels is 225 litres. Toasting levels contribute largely to the flavour. There are three levels of toast – light, medium and heavy. Light toast barrels are preferred for white wines and champagnes, whereas medium enhances fruity red wines aimed at five to six year of cellaring. Heavy toast barrels are meant for dark, alcoholic wines with a lot of extract, and contribute smoky, chocolaty and tobacco flavours.
Oak in general, French oak in particular, is an important ingredient in wine making, and worthy of consideration when making purchasing decisions. French barrels are the most expensive of all including those from America, Canada, Hungary, Russia, Slovenia, Armenia and Russia.