Oak has a centuries-old association with wine. This association is represented by use of old barrels of all sizes and conditions in publications and photographs across various aspects of the wine business.
There is a great deal of mystique around wine and wood; to the point that most consumers assume all wine is aged in wood and that wood is an essential part of the ageing process.
I hate to prick anyone’s romantic balloon but while wood is an important ingredient in winemaking it is not essential and many winemakers steadfastly refuse to use wood in their winemaking. If these winemakers do employ wood they often choose very large, old barrels, which impart little or no flavour elements to the wine – these vessels merely act as large resting tanks to mature young wines into well-rounded older wines.
In October 2008 I attended an event at Niagara College introducing the media and other industry people to Canadian Oak Cooperage (COC), a relatively new grassroots operation which avidly promotes the use of Canadian oak in domestic winemaking.
COC is the brainchild of Dr. Jim Hedges, a physician who works in the Cardiology Department at Hamilton General Hospital. Dr. Hedges is an amateur winemaker and woodworker who one day was clearing the forest on a family farm in Brant County when he discovered a large grove of old, tall white oak trees. White oak is found generally in more southerly regions and we are very close to the northern limits of its traditional regional home when we find it in this part of Ontario.
White oak is a desirable material for construction of oak barrels due to its very tight grain and its appealing flavour components. The flavour characteristics of Canadian oak are comparable to those of American oak, but are much more intense than French oak. The grain of white oak is thought to be denser due to our cold climate and the tight grain means there is little oxygen exchange with these barrels.
Traditionally Canadian winemakers have sought oak barrels from (in order of decreasing cost) France, The United States or Hungary. Canada as a supplier of barrel oak isn’t on the map, even locally.
Up until the Hedges venture was launched there hasn’t been enough raw material nor cooperage skills in Canada to make high-quality barrels. In fact there are presently no domestic barrel makers in Canada. The COC barrels for commercial wineries are made by AMK Cooperage in Missouri and the barrels for amateur winemakers are made by Gibb’s Brothers in Arkansas. What this means is the barrels are more costly than they would be if made domestically due to costs of transport of wood to the USA and barrels back to Canada.
Dr. Hedges is on a crusade to build his business with local winery support, so he can sponsor investment in a domestic cooperage. The goal: to have a fully vertically-integrated Canadian grape growing, winemaking, barrel manufacturing capability. There are very few countries that can boast full end-to-end capabilities in their wine industry and Hedges believes Canada has the raw materials to become one of the few. He is a folksy, engaging and entertaining crusader – but a crusader, nonetheless.
The real purpose of the Niagara College event was to introduce the audience to a research program now underway which is conducting a comparison of sensory and aromatic characteristics of wine made in three different barrel types. This research is being conducted by Niagara College with participation from Brock University (the Consumer Perception and Cognition Laboratory), Guelph University and Terrence van Rooyen, Niagara College winemaker.
This research has recently passed a milestone whereby wines aged in the different barrels (yes…French, American and Canadian oak) for the past 10 months has been subjected to blind tastings by several tasting panels to assess the flavour attributes of different varietals aged in the different barrel types.
At the event I attended we had the opportunity to taste a young Cabernet Sauvignon aged in each of the three oaks. The surprise for me was the distinct differences between the different oaks: the wine aged in French wood was thin, the American was green and the Canadian was well-balanced and ready to drink. It struck me that it might be possible that wine aged in the Canadian oak could be made ready for consumption earlier than otherwise possible if aged in oak from other sources. This topic obviously needs considerably more research but I was awakened to the potential of Canadian oak by this experience. The research continues, to assess the evolution of the wines after several more months in barrel.
Presently Canadian oak is shipped to four countries. In Canada it is used by Featherstone, Malivoire, Lailey, Thirty Bench and Daniel Lenko wineries.
Check the COC website for more information. Amateur winemakers who want to try Canadian oak for their 2011 vintage should contact the local supplier, Watson’s Family Farms of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Watsons also carries American, French and Hungarian oak. The Canadian Oak barrels for amateurs are made by Gibbs Brothers of Arkansas.
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.
Originally published in Winesights Vintages Newsletter Number 70, October 11, 2008. Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.