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Where does the wine barrel oak come from?........

Mostly German oak was used in Australia for barrels around the start of the century. From the 1920's onward American oak found it's way to Australia. Before WW II oak imported from Europe was known as "memel" oak since it was shipped through the port of Memel, now known as Klaipeda in Lithuania. After WW II and Russian occupation, "memel" oak was no longer available. Also currency and import limitations made it difficult to source American oak. The 40's and 50's saw French oak used in Australia. Sold as Limousin oak, it was quartersawn instead of split and very porous. In France it was used for brandy production rather than wine.

In the 60's when we were to really starting to expand our wine making skills we started using more French oak. There are five well know French oaks; Limousin, Nevers, Allier, Vosge and Troncais.

Limousin defines the broad region from where the oak is cut. Nevers is the city where oak is auctioned yearly from the many different forests of the Nievre "department". Allier is another "department" in the south. Vosge is in the north east and was the scene of many fierce battles in WW I. Up until the last 15 years very little oak was taken from Vosges as shrapnel embedded in the timber damaged saws and tools. Troncais comes from the "Colbert" forests. Colbert, Louis XIV's secretary of state was concerned that France would run out of oak to build ships and planted the forests in the late 17th century. While the other names define large regions of forest, Troncais refers to a small forest in the Allier "department". Oak is cut to produce only about 5,000 barriques a year. None was cut in the year 2000 due to storm damage. Having now defined these regions it's interesting to note they are rarely used in France itself. The oak is sorted according to grain; coarse, medium and fine. Grain refers to the distance between the annual growth rings of the tree. The faster the growth rate, the greater the distance between the growth rings, the coarser the grain.

Yugoslavia was another important source of oak up to the 70's. Whole logs where imported into France and split there. The Yugoslavian government wanted to value add by splitting the logs but this is a skilled and difficult operation. Quality suffered and sales dried up.

With Eastern bloc countries opening up in the last ten years, we now see oak coming from Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Western Russia, Eastern Russia, Northern China, Poland, Croatia, the Ukraine and Hungary.

Earlier in the century Hungary supplied poor grade quartersawn oak not generally suitable for high quality wine production. Since the fall of the Communist governments, the Hungarians are the only suppliers who have developed the skills and infrastructure to supply cooperage grade oak. The Tokaj region in Hungary supplies some of the best oak. Light, rocky soils mean slow growth rates and fine grains. And naturally how each type of oak is used, how it's toasted, seasoned and treated will give different flavours to the wine.

Some information in this article sourced from: "The growth in the use of European oaks for cooperage" Geoff Schahinger


* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery

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