Alternative Woods to Oak Barrels

Alternative Woods to Oak Barrels
Most red wines and some white wines have ‘wood treatment’ meaning they are aged in oak barrels, or for cheaper wines that effect is simulated by the use of oak staves, chips or powder. Oak is the standard wood and French oak is the most prized and expensive.

Recently some other woods have been gaining favour. Acacia wood has been used for sweet wines in Bordeaux, and now California wineries are experimenting with them for white wines in place of more expensive oak barrels. Winemakers say that acacia preserves natural floral characteristics, has fewer tannins and doesn’t dominate structure and with good mouth feel with off-putting oak flavours.

Olivier Rousset, winemaker at California’s Koehler Winery, uses acacia barrels for Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. He said "it’s not heavy or oaky. It gives some freshness and tropical notes to the wine."*

Although the acacia tree, whose wood is used for these wine barrels, originated in eastern USA and was planted in Europe in the 1600s, it’s now known in the USA as black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia). The tree now called acacia in the USA is an entirely different species.

Another wood being trialled is chestnut, which is said to impart spicy, woody smells and tastes, however the wood is more porous than oak so long barrel aging is not recommended.

Chestnut was used in the old days before efficient transportation when barrel makers used local woods. Old California wineries are decorated with large barrels made from redwood. In Greece the use of pine wood is still remembered in Retsina, the local wine flavoured with pine resin.

Two South African wineries, KWV and Audacia, have exploited the powerful anti-oxidant properties of two native woods, rooibos and honeybush, during fermentation and maturation as an alternative to adding sulphites as a preservative. KWV winemaker Louwritz Louw said: "This is a major advantage for people who suffer from sulphur intolerance."

*Source: Wines & Vines -

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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