French Oak Barrels
A discussion with Bill Williamson.
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 250 barrels each year and take about 100 older ones off-line for other use.
Our white wines spend up to one year in oak barrels while our red wines are aged anywhere from eighteen months to four years, all exclusively in French oak barrels using a variety of French cooperage to allow more infinite control over style and flavor of each individual 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.
Barrel-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. The forests are Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges, and each is considered to have distinctive characteristics. When we order barrels we specify the exact forest as source of the barrels.
American vs French Oak
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.