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European Oak Aims For Recognition

February 2012
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
More often than not, options that look like either/or choices turn out to be not so binary after all. Paper or plastic? No thanks, I’ll just carry my reusable organically grown cotton tote bag. Coke or Pepsi? No way, Bubba, gimme an RC and a Moon Pie. Blade or electric? Gillette has a new razor with five battery-powered blades. There may even be more than two answers to the ultimate pop culture question: Mary Ann or Ginger?

The same goes for the eternal question of cooperage: French oak or American oak? Just as there are places in the world that make great Cabernet besides Bordeaux and the Napa Valley—another commonly held false binary—there are lots of places to grow barrel-worthy oak trees. Such timber can be found in almost all of the former Soviet-style Republics of central and Eastern Europe: Hungary first and foremost, but also Russia, Romania, Croatia—the list goes on and on. All these areas have been making oak wine barrels for hundreds of years, and even making better ones in the past decade or two.

This should not be news to any one. Hungarian and other European oaks have been available in the United States for more than a decade; they get distribution through every major international cooperage, and they work their magic in every size and shape of winery, small to large, West Coast to East.

The broad European oak category probably accounts for somewhere between 10% and 15% of the oak import market. But still, European oak gets no respect: The false binary freezes it out of the discussion way too often, as though it was Quercus invisibilius. To rectify that omission, let’s give European oak its 15 minutes of fame, which is about how long it will take to read this article.

The Quercus complex

Oak comes in several hundred species, and the sub-genus of Quercus (which is where we want to be in the timber taxonomy) contains nearly a hundred of them. Quite a number have some degree of potential as barrel material, including Oregon (Q. garryana) and Virginia (Q. virginiana) oak.

The players in the usual binary tree-toss are Quercus alba, the American white oak, and two contenders from France: Quercus petraea, aka Sessile oak (apparently a reference to the fact that leaves are attached directly to stems, with no stalks), the predominant species in the Allier, Nevers and Tronçais forests; and Quercus robur, or English oak, predominant in Limousin. These two “French” species are closely related, often confused for each other, often used interchangeably in cooperages and given to spontaneous hybridization.

I put “French” in quotes just now because, in fact, these species are distributed across most of Europe and into western Asia. And indeed, the main species in the forests of Hungary and the rest of central/Eastern Europe is good old Q. petraea, the same tree growing in higher status French forests. It would make as much sense to call this particular plant “Hungarian” oak as “French,” since as Sandor “Sonny” Kallai of Zemplén Barrels notes, most of the countries in the growing region were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before Hungary had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of one war after another.

Again, no news here. Mel Knox, broker for Trust Hungary barrels (in partnership with François Frères) and Kadar barrels (in partnership with Taransaud), puts it this way: “The fact that French and Hungarian oak are the same species should be known to every barrel buyer in the free world.” But the right oak species and five bucks will get you a latté. Those same buyers are likely to think that forest trumps species; France’s Allier is a famous forest for barrels, Hungary’s Zemplén, not so much.

Think about the range of possibilities within a single grape species—Vitis vinifera—and apply that broad-mindedness to oak. Leaving aside genetic mutations, soil and climate can have significant effects on growth rates, grain and the levels of all manner of incidental compounds. If you’re making furniture, the levels of aromatic compounds don’t matter much. But if you’re making wine, then the differences in vanillin and eugenol compounds (responsible for spice aromas and flavors) matter a great deal, and researchers at Montpelier in France and the Australian Wine Research Institute have shown that concentrations of compounds like these vary considerably from forest to forest.

This makes it likely that the variations within “French” or Hungarian oak from different parts of the country are as great as the variation between the two broad national categories. Hungarian oak advocates in particular argue that some of their prime forest areas have poorer soils and chillier climates, leading to slower growth and, ultimately, tighter grain, a characteristic much prized in high-end wine barrels.

Cooperage quality

OK, let’s stipulate that central Europe has some great trees. But we’re in the market for barrels, not lumber, so the next question is, how good is the cooperage?

The universal view on this point is that Hungarian and central European cooperage started out pretty rough and has gotten considerably better in recent years. “When the Iron Curtain fell,” Knox says, barrels were made there as containers—lots of green wood, no aesthetics. They learned what they had to do.”

Frank Dietrich, whose Blue Danube Wine Co. imports wines from all over this zone, says it’s no surprise that an industry as young (in post-Communist years) as Hungary’s barrel business or even its wine production itself would show more variation in quality than more established sources.

At the same time, after years of experience with Hungarian oak at several wineries, winemaker Allen Kinne at Virginia’s Chrysalis Vineyards feels that there’s much less variability than there was 15 years ago. Paul Frommelt, who represents Trust Hungary barrels for the Francois Frères group, says the category “didn’t come out of the gate well 10 years ago, but the quality is getting better.”

Some of the improvement has come from the association of central European cooperages with larger, often French-based barrel conglomerates, which have raised standards for tree selection, aging time and techniques, barrel aest hetics and quality control. Several smaller, independent importers also have sprung up in recent years—Zemplén, Vadai and Kalina Cooper Trade, to name a few—with ties to cooperages back home and an eye on developing niche markets through bend-over-backwards customer service. Many of these upstart importers are on the East Coast, where Chrysalis’ Kinne says it’s sometimes hard to get French barrels, since the major barrel companies are focused on selling in California.

Most winemakers I talked to who have put Hungarian and central European wood to the test say the barrels perform very much like French barrels, both in terms of overall quality and contributions to wine flavors and aromas—or at least that European oak is much more similar to French oak than to American. That pretty well echoes what barrel distributors say about their products. “Objectively,” says Gary Chappell of Bouchard Cooperages, which represents one blended European source and one boutique Hungarian cooperage, “they are closer to French attributes than to American.”

Winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus at Chappellet Winery in Napa says he started trials in the 1990s without much consequence; the barrels were fine, but they just didn’t do anything further. When Trust barrels came onto the market several years ago, partnered with François Frères, he took another look, did some side-by-side trials and gradually increased the number of barrels from eight to 20 to 40 to the current 20%-25% of his barrel inventory. “Only recently,” he says, “are we getting to the point where we can identify the differences in-house; it took a while.”

Kinne says he can taste the difference, but adds that he’d “use Hungarian oak just about anywhere I’d use French oak.” Lindsay Stevenz at King Ferry/Treleaven in the Finger Lakes says her Hungarian barrels “are not exactly like the French, but for the cost, they’re a pretty close approximation.”

Distinctions and dollars

With a decade of widespread experience, users of Hungarian and central European oak share a modest consensus on what may be distinctive about this wood. Several of my informants mentioned support for a fuller mid-palate, and several mentioned an attractive spiciness that often sets them apart from their French counterparts. When varying forest conditions are combined with subtle coopering differences and multiple toast level options, the menu offerings become almost endless.

Peter Molnar of Kadar Hungary says that when their barrels first got put to work on Napa Cabernets many years back, during the ascendancy of the big, bold, high-extract style, winemakers thought there was something missing. True enough; most Hungarian oak won’t deliver the same structure that French oak does, but it can do other things French oak can’t, especially in the mid-palate. Like everyone in this business, he sees central European oak as a complement to French, not a total substitute.

That ideal of added complexity is surely a major reason for adding Hungarian and related oaks to the mix. King Ferry on Seneca Lake in New York uses Hungarian oak obtained through Canton, Demptos, Nadalié, Zemplén and Radoux, mixing it with French and American oak. One lake further east on Cayuga, Atwater Estate winemaker Anthony Alperti has only a few Hungarian barrels, but he likes what they do. “I don’t like to put anything in one box; we separate clones, do different fermentations—and in barrels, too, variation means more tools in the toolbox,” he says. Most everyone starts with a very few barrels for trials, then figures out where they fit in, then orders a few more, then…

To date, central European oak mainly gets used for red wine production. Knox says there is a good deal of interest among California producers of Rhone-style wines and Zinfandel. Chappellet mainly uses Hungarian oak for Bordeaux varieties. But then the winery mostly makes Bordeaux varieties. Duxoup Wine Works in Sonoma County likes Hungarian oak for its Sangiovese and Dolcetto; Winemaker Allen Cutter says that representatives from Nadalié suggested several years ago that the Hungarian oak they carry might be a good substitute for the Slavonian (northern Croatian) oak traditional in much Italian winemaking.

Meanwhile some winemakers, especially on the East Coast, are finding this under-the-radar wood quite suitable for barrel-fermented Chardonnay. That’s where King Ferry puts all those flavors of Hungarian oak to work, in one of their most popular wines, and that’s one of the places Kinne puts them to work at Chrysalis. (He also used Hungarian oak, along with French Tronçais, for a very successful Petit Manseng ice wine.) Out West at Chappellet, the winemaking team worked with Trust to design a more Burgundian, white wine-friendly barrel, and so far, the Chardonnay trials are going very well.

Finally, everyone agrees that central European barrels can do one thing French barrels can’t: save money. Top of the line Hungarian oak comes in at about two-thirds the price of French, and perhaps only 50% more than American oak. Better yet, Hungarian and related oaks are bought and sold in dollars, not euros, which has kept prices in check during recent volatile economic times. The Great Recession has encouraged more than one winery to check out the competition. “I spend a lot of time irritating people, bugging the hell out of people,” Knox says, “so they can save some money.”

It’s enough to make a lot of folks start trials.

Sessile status gap

So, central European oak has tree cred. Its coopers are getting better and better, it holds its own in blind tastings and it has lower prices. What’s not to like here? Why isn’t this wood a bigger deal? Why don’t more wineries spin tales of the romance of the Zemplén forest and how it makes their wines unique?

A few wineries actually do that, or at least mention non-French, non-American oak in public places like websites and tasting notes. Duxoup Wine Works is one West Coast example, but some random web searches nailed more hits for East Coast wineries, particularly in the Finger Lakes and Virginia. Most wineries—however, even those that happily use these barrels—don’t say much about them. What we have here is a status gap.

In Napa, says Knox, purveyors of fancy, high-priced wines are happy to spring for French wood, whatever it costs, because it complements their upscale image. But for the other 99%, where wine needs to be sold on the basis of a good story or a unique twist, flaunting unconventional or adventurous oak choices would seem like a good idea.

The halo surrounding French oak is particularly ironic since, up until the early 20th century, French winemakers were known to have a preference for Hungarian barrels. Demand in France remains strong; Bouchard’s Chappell says this is “due to history, which the French are aware of. The U.S. is such a nascent market; we’re enamored of things French, since they’ve done it for so long.” James Molnar, president of Trust (no relation to Peter Molnar of Kadar), says they have a big market share in Burgundy.

“In Europe,” says Vadai of Vadai Barrels, one of the independent importers, “the Zemplén forest is well known; in the U.S., it is absolutely unknown.” With Vadai barrels available in 40 states, that may be changing.

Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.

 
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