A wine’s quality hinges on the caliber of its raw materials. This sentiment drives every harvest season around the globe, as winemakers spend countless hours pursuing the finest fruit available from the vineyards they source, knowing full well that good wine is impossible without quality grapes.
The same can be said about the wood used to make wine barrels. Low-quality barrels stem from bad wood, which comes from inferior trees. This subpar lineage can greatly disrupt a winemaker’s ability to shape a wine’s character to match their desired results. Because of this, some wineries take a more active role in selecting the trees used to make their barrels.
The Influence — and Influences — of Wood
Wine barrels generally start as oak trees, primarily because oak’s tannins influence desirable qualities within a wine, like soft textures and nuanced flavor notes like vanilla. These traits make picking the right tree for a wine barrel a complex process. Diameter, seasonality, and weather play a role in how its wood can impact the wine. The width of a tree’s growth rings, known as grain, is of particular importance. Tighter grains allow more oxygen to enter, which can increase a wine’s more nuanced properties. This element can help dictate which varietal ends up in the barrel produced by a specific tree. “We’ll typically use a barrel made from a tree with a looser grain to make our Zinfandels,” says Justin Seidenfield, director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards. “On the other hand, we’ll use wood with a tighter grain to make some of our high-end Cabs or Chardonnays.”
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The trees’ home country, and specific region within that country, also plays a key role. Most barrels come from American or French oak trees, and their differences are deeper than their colloquial terms. First, each country delegates the trees’ point of origin differently. The U.S. designates its oak by state, while the French designate it by forest origin. The French also have rules in place that govern whether a barrel maker can cite a specific forest designation on their barrels, which are not unlike the rules for the country’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) wine designations.
Quercus alba (white oak) dominates the American landscape, particularly in Midwestern and Midwest-adjacent states like Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Quercus petraea (Irish oak) and Quercus robur (English oak) are primarily found in France. Quercus alba’s wood tends to be denser and features looser grain, leading to more intense, pronounced flavors. France’s two main species typically pack a tighter grain, delivering a more subtle influence on the juice’s flavors and textures. These differentiations don’t dictate what oak is better for winemaking, but they do determine what oak is better for the expression of wine a winery wishes to produce. “Stylistically, it does matter where the trees come from,” says Tony LeBlanc, president of the wineries Silver Oak and Twomey. “The American oak we use is sourced within a 100-mile radius, and there’s a symbiosis from that radius that ties in what we want from our wines.”
The Importance of the Cooper
Cooperages — the workshops that make the barrels for wines and spirits — are the backbone of a winery’s tree selection process. They not only help guide wineries and winemakers toward selecting the right trees for the wine they want to make, but they also transform the wood to a functional barrel by deploying fundamental design tactics like toasting and wood seasoning. These latter steps are crucial elements that draw precise characteristics from each barrel stave.
When a winery works with a cooperage to select the right trees, close professional relationships naturally form. Over time, these trusted bonds can evolve into collaborative processes, where feedback and discussions over specific barrel characteristics and influence can occur. It’s a type of dialogue that comes from a place of deep respect for the cooper’s craftsmanship. “Science provides us with a road map to get a barrel from a tree, but there are several gaps along the way,” says Patrick Muran, winemaker at Niner Wine Estates. “Those gaps do not get filled without the work of a skilled cooper.”
In the case of Silver Oak, this respect led to a business marriage of sorts. The winery purchased 50 percent of longtime cooperage partner A&K Cooperage in Higbee, Mo., in 2000 before acquiring full ownership in 2015, renaming it The Oak. According to LeBlanc, the purchase has created an ideal form of creative synergy that extends fully from tree and stave to grape and glass. “As a winery, we like to exercise innovation, experimentation, and refinement to make the best wines possible,” he says. “We feel very fortunate that we can extend this same philosophy to our cooperage.”
Respect for the Tree
On average, the American oak trees used to make wine barrels are well over 100 years old. Seidenfeld notes the minimum tree age for barrel usage in France is 170. When they’re chopped down, they can supply just enough wood for two to three barrels, with the residual wood used for other purposes like furniture or wood veneers. This commands reverence for winemakers and their teams whenever they make the trek to see the trees up close. “It’s humbling when you realize that the tree you’re staring at started growing in the 19th century,” Muran says. “Some of the trees we’ve seen on our trips to France still have bullets and shrapnel from World War I embedded in them. When you see that, it fills you with a fuller appreciation from where exactly your trees are coming from.”
This level of reverence isn’t something wineries want to keep to themselves. Just like the other elements of wine that are creative and beautiful, winemakers who are into selecting trees are eager to share their wine barrels’ roots with others. Doing so can help imbibers develop an even deeper level of respect for the effort that goes into their bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay — one that can grow as sturdy as, well, an oak tree. “There’s a certain type of romance to a barrel, and everyone wants to learn more about it,” Seidenfeld states. “Once they learn about the method behind making a barrel, how it starts from picking the right tree and how one size does not fit all, they develop a new level of appreciation for what a winery can do.”