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Canadian Oak Barrels Get the Nod From Winemakers

Flavors said to be different from the commonly used French and American oaks.

Konrad Ejbich
Posted: November 11, 2003

Two amateur winemakers in Canada have started the first company to manufacture wine barrels from rare Canadian oak, using trees grown in a small area of southern Ontario. They say the barrels impart different flavors than the oaks commonly used for winemaking.

"It's distinct from French or American oak," said Ann Sperling, winemaker at Malivoire Wine Co., one of several Ontario estates making trial lots with the Canadian barrels.

Dr. Jim Hedges, a cardiac surgical assistant at Hamilton General Hospital, and Michael Risk, a retired geology professor at McMaster University, started Canadian Oak Cooperage Inc. after experimenting with small barrels they had made from the wood.

"We were thinning some really old overmature trees on my sister's woodlot to supply more light to younger saplings," Hedges said. "When I recognized the oak, Mike and I wondered if we could use it to make ourselves a few wine barrels." A woodworker by hobby, Hedges tried to make a small wine cask but quickly discovered cooperage is a skill best left to professionals.

As there are no qualified wine-barrel makers in Canada, Hedges and Risk loaded up four hockey-equipment bags with hand-cut staves and took them to Gibb Bros. Cooperage in Hot Springs, Ark. Four days later they returned with three miniature barrels and began experimenting with aging Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the new barriques. "They seemed to impart a flavor similar to French oak," Hedges said.

In 2001, they convinced Derek Barnett, winemaker at high-end Lailey Vineyard in Ontario to produce two bottlings of his estate-grown Chardonnay, one aged in Canadian oak and one in American. The single 30-gallon barrel of 2001 Canadian Oak Aged Chardonnay was well-received by local wine writers and collectors.

"I think the Canadian oak has real potential," said Barnett. "At this point, the flavors seem a bit stronger than French oak, but I think we need more time to learn the nuances of the wood."

For the 2002 vintage, Barnett bought six full-sized, 59-gallon (225-liter) Canadian oak casks made by A & K Cooperage of Missouri from 100-year-old heartwood that had been air dried for 24 months. Several other Ontario wineries produced trial batches in Canadian oak, as did retired Silver Oak Cellars general manager Dave Cofran, who still manages Silver Oak's 50-percent interest in A & K.

Cofran produced three Merlots, one each in full-sized barrels of Canadian, French and Missouri-harvested American oak. "Our own Missouri oak had the strongest vanilla flavors, the French was more like cigar box, and the Canadian wood was midway between the two," Cofran said. He added that the character of the Canadian oak is unique enough to merit further testing. "It's not better or worse than the others, just different."

The Canadian oak is actually Quercus alba, the same species from which American barrels are produced. The American oak used for wine is usually grown in the Carolinian forests of the lower Great Lakes area and the Mississippi River floodplains, including Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. According to the French cooperage firm of Seguin-Moreau, American oak has components that give it two to five times the aromatic potential of European oak.

French oak is of different species, primarily Quercus sessiliflora (also known as sessilis) and Quercus robur or pedunculata. Much of the wood for wine barrels is grown in the central forests of Allier, Nevers and Tronçais, and in the northern Vosges forest near the region of Alsace. It tends to have a tighter grain and smaller pores than American oak. Winemakers also use oak from Eastern European countries, such as Hungary.

For the Canadian oak, "The flavors are closer to [oak from] Vosges, which grows in a cooler region, much like ours," said Sperling of Malivoire. "It's too soon to say what the full range of characteristics of Canadian oak are. These wines are still in their infancy."

This year, Canadian Oak Cooperage produced 120 59-gallon barrels for sale at C$850 (US$650) as well as a few 15-gallon kegs at C$375 (US$285) for the home winemaking market.

"As soon as the market accepts us, we could gear up to make several hundred," Hedges said. "I hate to sell this stuff as flooring."

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Read more about oak barrels and what they contribute to wine:

  • Sept. 30, 2002
    Oak Flavorings

  • July 31, 2001
    Barrel Making

  • Oct. 15, 2000
    French Barrelmaker Turns to Russian Oak

  • Jan. 18, 1999
    Chinese Barrels Enter American Wineries

  • Feb. 28, 1998
    Napa Tasting Shows Off American Oak
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