FRENCH OAK BARRELS
. . . why use barrels and why French . . .
A Discussion with Bill WilliamsonOak wood barrels have been preferred for aging wine for hundreds of years and they remain popular even though they are expensive, difficult to move and perishable.
Barrels are not just containers, they provide micro-oxidation and contribute phenolics to the flavor and aroma of red wine. The extent to which each barrel contributes differs based on the type of wood, the toast level, the number of vintages and the type of wine aged in each barrel.
The oak in our barrels comes from one of three forests in central France. Planted by order of Napoleon to ensure these unique French Oak forests survived.
Each tree is between 200 to 300 years old when it is selected and cut. After three to five years of air drying the oak is formed into a barrel by a master cooper. The barrel is toasted internally and sealed for shipment to us here in California.
At Williamson Wines we add about 300 barrels each year and take about 200 older ones off-line for other use.
Bill and Clair Sylvain tasting Williamson Wines aged in Sylvan barrels. Clair is the granddaughter of Gérard Sylvain who began producing barrels in Libourne, France in 1957.
Our white wines spend up to one year in oak barrels while our red wines are aged anywhere from eighteen months to four years, exclusively in French oak barrels using different barrel regimes, i.e., percentage of new barrels -vs- one use -vs- neutral as well as a variety of French cooperage, all to ensure one barrel does not dominate the wine. During this process the progress of each wine is tested via lab panels, then each is tasted and racked as appropriate for the variety and its progress.
American or French OakBarrel-destined oak trees ideally grow in cool climates, allowing them to mature slowly and develop a desirable tight grain. Most of the French oak for barrels comes from one of five forests located in central France, Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges.
Each is considered to have distinctive characteristics. When we order barrels we specify the exact forest as the source of the barrel wood.
In contrast, American barrels aren’t distinguished by forest; oak for barrels is grown in 18 different states, mostly in the Midwest and in the Appalachians, as well as Oregon.
There are many variables when it comes to oak aging. We use exclusively French barrels but there are other variables, such as different barrel producers, different levels of toast (the heating of the inside of the barrels), and "regime" the mixing of newer (and therefore stronger) with older (more neutral) barrels.
Generally French oak barrels are more subtle and spicy, offering finer textures of satin or silk. American barrels tend to be stronger in flavor, often described as cream soda, vanilla, or coconut, resulting in wines with a more creamy texture.
Every barrel salesperson has the same pitch; "You'll never find a finer barrel". It's not the finest barrels we seek, it's the barrels that produce the finest wine.