It has been a marriage made in vinous heaven: red Spanish grapes, primarily Tempranillo, and American wood (oak). Even today, in an ever diversifying world, venerable Rioja wineries such a R. López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta are deeply —as in 100%— committed to barrels crafted from the white oak trees found in the eastern and central United States.
“In our opinion, American oak is the best complement to highlight the attributes of La Rioja Alta,” says winemaker Julio Sáenz. “It provides balsamic, creamy and spicy aromas that complement the red fruit aromas of Tempranillo, Graciano and Garnacha. In the mouth it provides smoothness, creaminess and a finer and more elegant palate. We believe that it reinforces the ageing capacity of our wines.”
For more than a century, American oak has infused the bold flavors of Tempranillo with softer notes of vanilla, cocoa, caramel and coconut. It has become THE hallmark of Rioja wines, element that millions of consumers around the globe have come to appreciate.
Yet in an ever-diversifying world, a few cracks are appearing in this ever-traditional marriage. Some Rioja vintners, especially younger ones, are gravitating toward not only French oak, with its firmer but still spicy notes, but also barrels from central and eastern Europe.
“Historically in our winery most of the oak was American,” says Jorge Muga, winemaker at Bodegas Muga. “In the last 30 years we moved to a more diverse origin of oaks: Hungarian, Slovenian, Russian, Romanian. And of course, we studied deeply all the different areas of France and the US. After many years we learned to adapt the virtuosities of each oak to enrich different wines. So now we use a different oak depending on the wine.”
Muga still uses American oak, but says he weans what he calls the “first impact” characteristics he doesn’t care much for on his Crianzas (in which other types of wood leaven the effects). “The ‘second impact’ is complex and elegant. We love it.” So those barrels are used for nine months on Muga’s prized Prado Enea wines.
Other wineries have moved toward a combination of American and French oak. Sometimes that means ageing different lots or different grapes in one or the other. Wineries such as Beronia even use “blended” barrels: American staves and French heads, or vice versa.
Conversely, Cvne uses 100% American oak barrels for its Crianza wines, says Cvne community manager Javier Moreno Cañaveras. He adds that the Reserva reds get a combination of American and French, and that the winery still likes what American oak brings to its longer-ageing wines.
That’s a big part of the appeal for another top Tempranillo producer from nearby Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia. “It is important to work the roundness, the sucrosity [sense of sweetness] and to fill the mouth of the wine,” says winemaker Gonzalo Iturriaga.
Like many of his peers, Iturriaga switches up the storage vessels for his longer-ageing wines: 20% to 30% new American oak the first year and 15 to 25% used barrels the second year before going into larger wooden vats (85 to 200 hectoliters).
Also like many of his comrades in wine, Iturriaga buys and imports oak staves from Kentucky-based Canton Cooperage and has a Spanish outfit assemble and toast the barrels. Sáenz says La Rioja Alta dries raw American staves at its own facility for three years before having barrels assembled.
Cvne is the proverbial exception that proves the rule, bringing over already assembled barrels from several US cooperages, including Canton and Seguin Moreau.
The latter outfit furnishes the wood for not only Cvne but also such wineries as Artadi and Marqués de Riscal. Spanish-based sales engineer Rodrigo Pérez says that while French oak has gained popularity in recent years, higher-end wineries still love their American oak.
“In Rioja, American oak is really appreciated for some kinds of wines of the Denominación de Origen, especially the classic ones,” Pérez says. “Historically, Rioja producers have worked a lot with this oak because American oak bring sweetness and complexity to the wines.”
Aside from Seguin Moreau, other US coopers —which in almost all cases are merely sending over untreated wood for the wineries to work with in Spain— did not respond to repeated requests for comments. Still, their relationships have a long history, basically dating from the origins of Rioja’s emergence as a significant wine appellation.
In the late 1800s, after Bordeaux was devastated by phylloxera, many winemakers headed south to Rioja. They brought their expertise in crafting world-class wines, but had trouble getting barrels from their native land. The rarity of French barrels prompted many of them to look across the ocean for cheaper, more readily available oak.
They soon learned that this wood (Quercus alba) shared with its European counterpart (Quercus robur) ellagitannin, a tannin that protected the wine from oxidation, but also a component called tylose, which prevented leakage. And an everlasting union was forged.
The bond continues at Marqués de Murrieta, says winemaker María Vargas, noting that about 85% of its oak is from the United States. “The American oak we use is really respectful with the aromas and structure of the wine, and it matches perfectly with the time we need to age our Reserva or Gran Reserva.”
Count CVNE’s Cañaveras among the devotees as well. “American oak behaves very well with aging in barrel,” Moreno Cañaveras says. “Also, the aromas the American oak provides to the wine are those expected in Rioja wines.”
That’s an expectation spawned by a 100-plus-year-old marriage.