Even though the coopers are making progress with American oak barrels and some winemakers are finding them more appealing, others remain opposed to their use in any form, especially for delicate white wines, such as Chardonnay. These winemakers feel the American oak barrels would overpower the very nuances they have worked to achieve.
However, Robert deLeuze, from Napa’s ZD Winery uses 100% American oak barrels with his chardonnay, comparing the use to that of using different spices in cooking. It seems to work with the rich and powerful style of wine they are making. According to deLeuze, American oak barrels have gotten a bad rap simply because of their lower price. While older American oak barrels may not have been suited to aging wine, as they were designed for aging whiskey, and were not appropriate for wine storage, times and oak barrels have changed.
Winemakers who produce robust reds are more likely to be willing to try American oak barrels, at least in part for aging their wines. The strong berry like flavor of hillside fruit seems to have no problem handling the stronger American oak barrels.
Dick Steltzner of Napa chooses French oak as he believes American oak barrels create flashier and upfront flavors that tend to fade instead of developing like the French oak. He believes that air drying can leach the excess tannins but is unsuccessful in changing the nature of the oak extract on the wine.
While many winemakers continue to prefer French oak barrels, there are some wineries that have made the switch to 100% American oak barrels for aging their red wines.
At Silver Oak Vineyards, Justin Meyer, owner and winemaker, says they used blind taste tests to find they prefer American oak. Still each winemaker has different standards. If five wine makers were to take part in the experiment, there would be five different responses. Meyer believes there is no right or wrong decision.
Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino’s winemaker Paul Draper chooses 100% American oak for all his wines except his Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, for which he uses 50% American oak. This winery has been using American oak barrels since its inception in 1969. They were not interested in making California versions of European wines, but preferred the flavors imparted by American oak. In 1969, the difference in price between the types of oak barrels was less than $25. They did not see the economic motivation behind their choice seen today.
It is likely the debate between French oak barrels and American oak barrels will continue to be lively for many decades. However, it is an oversimplification to say the differences in wines are simply due to the winemaker’s choice of American oak barrels and French oak barrels.