SAN ANTONIO — It takes more money than ever to make a bottle of wine these days. The cost of the bottle itself has gone up, as have the prices of corks and even foil caps.
But few elements of winemaking have risen quite as drastically as the cost of oak, especially French oak barrels.
The declining value of the dollar has seen prices of French oak barrels skyrocket in the past year, leaving winemakers wondering if they’re going to change courses in how they make wine.
The cost of one French oak barrel is now around $800, up from around $600 just two years ago, says Sean Minor, owner of Four Bears Wines in California.
“I think a good chunk of it is the dollar,” he says of the increase.
An American oak barrel costs about $250. Does oak matter?
Karen MacNeil addresses the subject in “The Wine Bible”:
“Without oak, many wines as we know them would not exist. They would not taste the same, smell the same, or have the same texture. Nor are there substitutes for oak. Cherry, walnut, chestnut, pine and many other woods can all be made into barrels; none, however, enhances wine the way oak does. Nor has technology devised an oak alternative. In short, wine and oak — inseparable for the last two millennia of winemaking — show every sign of remaining married.”
She goes on to say that “oak has the ability to transform wine, to coax it out of the genre of simple fermented fruit juice and give it depth, complexity and intensity.”
In other words, oak is important, unless you want to spend your life drinking lean sauvignon blanc.
But why favor French oak over American?
The flavor each imparts to wine is different, and many wine lovers swear they can tell which is which.
In simple terms, American oak is generally bolder and imparts more pronounced flavors of vanilla, butter, spice and oak. That’s because the wood has a looser grain, so it gives up its flavors more freely. Think about the bold flavor of Silver Oak’s two cabernet sauvignons and how well it goes with a thick, juicy steak. That’s American oak.
French oak is said to be more subtle. It integrates itself into the fruit, the earth, the acid, the depth of the wine more slowly. That’s because French oak traditionally has a tighter grain.
So, winemakers searching for more elusive, elegant qualities in their wines often say they prefer the effect French oak offers. And many are willing to pay the difference.
Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards uses American oak for his reds, but he favors oak from Allier, France, for his chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc.
“There is a vanilla flavor that is singular in the oak from Allier,” he says. “American oak doesn’t kill (the fruit in white wine), but it doesn’t give it that subtle nuance of vanilla” that Allier oak has.
Not every winemaker, however, adheres to the broad, long-held opinions about American and French oak.
Michael Eckstein, senior winemaker for Franciscan and Mount Veeder, says, “American oak has come a long way in the last 10-12 years.”
Part of that is an ever-growing appreciation on the barrel makers’ part to craft barrels for wine, not whiskey, as has long been done in the past.
So, Eckstein says, his job has become one of taking the grapes he has each harvest and using the best oak to match. Some lots will lend themselves to French oak, others to American.
“We need to leave preconceived notions behind,” Eckstein says. “The synergistic effect of grapes and the right oak is what’s important.”
And the price of wine is what is important to many consumers.
At the moment, prices have remained relatively stable, even while all the components in producing each bottle have increased.
“There’s so much competition out there,” Becker says. “I can’t raise my prices over what they are now.”
c.2008 San Antonio Express-News