Why would a winemaker mix different kinds of oak in the same barrel?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Tell me about the use of mixed French-American oak barrels, where the body of the barrel is American oak and the top and bottom are French. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of barrel?

—Olga, Italy

Dear Olga,

What you describe are often called “hybrid” barrels: the top and bottom parts (the “heads” of the barrel) are made from oak from one region, while the rest of the body—the pieces of wood called “staves”—are made from a different type of oak. I’ve heard about versions like the ones you’ve described, versions where those types of wood are swapped, and versions that include oak from Russia or from other regions.

Winemakers use barrels (or don’t) to achieve a particular style of wine, and French barrels and American barrels impart different types of flavors. It’s not unusual for a winemaker to use a mix of barrels from different sources, different toast levels, and even different ages of barrels, since younger barrels will impart stronger flavors than older, more “neutral” barrels.

Advantages? Hybrid barrels give a winemaker more flexibility. Instead of just buying French and American barrels and aging wine separately before blending, now a winemaker can get the benefit of both types of oak in a single barrel. Besides style advantages, there could be savings advantages, too. Prices vary, but French barrels can be much more expensive than American barrels, while hybrid barrels may fall somewhere in between, creating a less expensive way to add a little French oak influence.

As far as the disadvantages go, not every winemaker likes the effect the hybrids have, or is comfortable switching from a traditional barrel program to something new. As a wine lover, learning about a wine’s barrel regimen doesn’t always give much clue as to how that translates to what’s inside the glass. There are plenty of other variables, including varietal breakdown, vineyard sourcing, the ripeness of grapes at harvest and fermentation techniques, that can influence the end result just as much, if not more.

—Dr. Vinny

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