The dominance of French and American oak at the world's wineries is under threat from Eastern European sources. GUY WOODWARD sizes up the new contenders

The dominance of French and American oak at the world’s wineries is under threat from Eastern European sources. GUY WOODWARD sizes up the new contenders

The concept of terroir – and its significance – has long been debated in wine circles. Be the emphasis on variety, climate or soil, most commentators agree that local conditions have a profound effect on grapes. So what of the influence of similar conditions on the other major constituent in many of today’s wines – oak?

While oak grown for barrels doesn’t (yet) come from as many regions as produce wine, it stands to reason that if different vineyards growing the same grape hundreds of miles apart produce contrasting fruit, so different forests will produce varying strains of oak. After all, French cooperages have been trading on the unique properties of the forests of Allier, Vosges and Tronçais for years.

French and American barrel-makers have long enjoyed a virtual duopoly on supplying wineries. Why? Because their raw materials were French and American. Today, while this Gallic/US dominance continues, it is balanced by an increasing willingness to look further and wider for suppliers. The motivation? A fine balance of quantity, quality and the inevitable, overwhelming influence – price.

EASTERN BLOCKS

Hungarian, Russian, Bulgarian, Canadian and South African oak are all gaining prominence among cooperages as serious alternatives. Eastern Europe, in particular, has proved a happy hunting ground, with a number of French coopers running trials and setting up supply chains in the region.

‘Eastern European oak is a very good alternative to French oak,’ says Marc de Ribains, commercial and marketing director of French barrel-maker Tonnellerie Radoux. The firm buys much of its wood in Caucasia, where it claims it can make price gains without sacrificing quality: ‘The robur oak trees that we find in these forests are very similar to those in France,’ says de Ribains. ‘Most customers who have tried this alternative are very satisfied, and I believe this origin will increase in the future.’

Safe sales patter maybe, but de Ribains’ words get to the heart of the matter. Can oak from a variety of Eastern European sources replicate the reliability and quality of its French counterpart, to which its character bears most resemblance? And will the price savings justify the risk?

Not everyone is convinced. Tonnellerie Rousseau conducted trials of central European oaks for four years, before turning its back on the project last year. It had sourced oak from the Ukraine and Russia, and split the logs in Poland before shipping the wood back to France for assembly. ‘It was very difficult to track the wood from the source to the cooperage,’ says Manoël Bouchet, sales and marketing manager at Rousseau.
‘There isn’t always transparency,’ confirms Pascal Collotte of Tonnellerie Saury. ‘You can have European oak mixed with French without noticing it.

Another concern was Cezium-137 activity – the Chernobyl effect, to you and me. Although the French body responsible for checking products’ radioactivity and nuclear safety levels declared no trace of contamination in the wood, Bouchet sees it as a ‘constraint that doesn’t help to market such a product’.
The joke currently doing the rounds in cooperages is that oak contaminated with Chernobyl radiation is sold to Hungarians as Russian oak. The Hungarians sell it on to the French as Hungarian oak, and the French sell it to Californians as French oak. The benefit? You don’t need to turn the lights on to do a racking.

There is little evidence of any lingering adverse effects from Chernobyl, but there is lingering distrust. Bouchet admits that part of the reason that Rousseau has stuck with French oak is that ‘it’s our culture and represents the image of French coopers’. Similarly, Seguin Moreau and Tonnellerie du Monde initially experienced patriotic hostility to their Eastern European experiments. ‘Wineries would say, “Oh, Russian oak – it’s just a cheap alternative”,’ says Seguin Moreau’s commercial director, Sophie Jump.

THE TASTE TEST

Seguin Moreau set up its timber mill in the Russian republic of Adygey 15 years ago, and has since persuaded many of its customers of the merits of Caucasian oak. Its output has doubled to 5,000 barrels a year in the last five years and Jump reports more wineries coming on board.

Adygey is on the same 45? latitude as the central France massif, and its oak shares the latter’s characteristics – tight-grained, slow growing, ideal for ageing premium wines. But it is its organoleptic qualities that are now being recognised. ‘It’s more aromatic [than French oak], which helps bring out the fruit,’ says Jump.

Even critics acknowledge this much. ‘[Russian oak] shows a great aromatic potential, with a high concentration of vanillin,’ admits Bouchet. But equally, he claims, ‘These woods lend some very harsh characteristics to the back palate, while the strong vanilla expression could be too heavy for some fruits.’ He accuses Russian oak of ‘a lack of finesse’.

Jean-Marc Didier, sales manager for Tonnellerie du Monde’s Quintessence brand, agrees: ‘While French oak is elegant on the finish, Russian oak is more drying. It doesn’t have that creaminess – it’s rougher.’ Consequently, Tonnellerie du Monde turned to south Bulgaria, where it bought a mill 10 years ago to season Bulgarian oak, and wood from other Eastern European sources, for use in its Quintessence brand. Similarly tight-grained, the oak has an added complexity, according to Didier, making it suitable for ageing the Bordeaux varieties, plus the Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault of the south of France. ‘We’ve also seen evidence of Californian wineries experimenting with it for Cabernet Sauvignon,’ he adds.

E&J Gallo, and its offshoot Gallo of Sonoma, uses Hungarian oak to age its wines. Gina Gallo, the third generation winemaker, is convinced of its quality: ‘Hungarian oak has more creamy vanilla and coconut flavours than typical French barrels,’ she says. ‘Likewise, it has softer tannins and less harshness than typical American barrels.’ With names like Gallo and Beringer on board, it’s no surprise that Californian merchant Mel Knox, who handles many of François Frères’ 25,000 Hungarian barrels, is bullish:

‘Ten years ago, Hungarian barrels were one step up from a rumour,’ he says. ‘Today, they make up 5% of my business. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be 15% in 10 years’ time.’ But as Knox recognises, ‘People are nervous about trying new things. It took people 10 years to get a handle on [oak from] Vosges.’

Besides Hungarian and Russian oak, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Germany and Poland all boast sizeable forests, while Seguin Moreau has trialled wood from Lithuania and Romania. However, much of the Polish and Hungarian forests are relatively young, and their oak not yet fit for cooperage.

Italian producers have shown signs of favouring highly tannic oak from Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia in recent years, particularly for use with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Ontario winemakers meanwhile have turned to Canadian oak – tighter grained than American, and said to lend a fennel and liquorice character – to age Bordeaux blends, plus Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Equally, some German and Slovakian oak has found its way to Australia for use in Semillon blends. ‘German oak has a nutty, toasty character,’ says David Powell, chief winemaker at Torbreck Winery in the Barossa Valley. ‘Let’s face it, the forests in Europe are so close together that unless you’re using an exclusive supplier, you’d be hard pushed to notice the difference.’

Certainly that has been the case at blind tastings held to compare identical wines aged in different oaks, where preferences have been marginal (though in favour of Russian oak-aged samples). There remains a feeling, however, that Eastern European oak is not as cheap as it ought to be. Despite the lower cost of the raw materials and labour in the region, Hungarian and Russian barrels have an average price tag of just h50 lower than the standard h600 for a French barrel. US-made barrels cost around half the price.

With more sources coming on stream, it will be some time before they can all be analysed. And even then, as Mark Sefton of the Australian Wine Research Institute concludes: ‘There can be as much variation between trees in a forest as between countries – this is one of the reasons why it’s hard to make definitive statements about comparisons between countries.’

There is one definitive statement that can be made. French oak supplies are limited, while Russia has the largest oak reserves in the world. Sooner or later, they will need to be used.

Written by Guy Woodward