Why are French barrels made with American oak so popular in Spain?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I’m researching Rioja winemaking and I see it has been strongly influenced by France’s Bordeaux region. The use of barrique-size barrels comes from the French and is required to make wines classified as crianza, reserva or gran reserva. However, it also seems that, traditionally, the oak used in Rioja is American and not French (even if this is not really true anymore today). So were 225-liter barriques made with American oak? It seems a bit strange given that they come from France?

—Marie, London

Dear Marie,

I love how much you are paying attention to the glorious wines of Spain! I checked with Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, our lead taster for the wines of Spain, to answer your question. He explains that Rioja’s modern wine era comes from three distinct sources.

“The dominant grape is Tempranillo, indigenous to the region and common throughout Spain. The general approach to vine growing and winemaking is French, brought from Bordeaux in the late 19th century. And the use of American oak in the barrels used for maturation, which gives the wines a shared and distinctive character, is a consequence largely of Spain’s historic trade relations with the New World,” Matthews says. He adds that Quercus alba oak trees are abundant in North America and their wood is less expensive than that of the Quercus robur oaks found in France.

You bring up an interesting point about the regulations regarding Spanish wines, and Matthews offers some additional insight: “Rioja wine regulations require the wines (except for the “joven” category) to mature for specified lengths of time in 225-liter barrels. Until the 1980s, those barrels were almost always made from American oak. But in recent years, some vintners have begun using French oak, to achieve a different, but still delicious, style of Rioja.”

—Dr. Vinny

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