California Wineries Try Acacia Barrels

Alternative wood, technically black locust, takes the 'oakiness' out of white wines

by Paul Franson
Steven Canter
Quivira winemaker Steven Canter says acacia provides spice and flavor without artificial sweetness.
Healdsburg, Calif. -- Though oak is almost synonymous with wine barrels, a small number of California wineries are now experimenting with aging their wines using another wood.

The barrels are made from what’s popularly called acacia wood, actually the Robinia pseudoacacia or black locust tree, a native of the eastern U.S. now widespread in central and southeast Europe. The wood is dense, tight-grained and tough, and it makes excellent barrels. Winemakers who tried it largely enjoyed its impact on white wines, especially its lack of “oakiness.”

Oakasions, a company in Healdsburg, Calif., imports acacia barrels from three cooperages including Tonnellerie Du Sud-Ouest. Oakasions quotes a price of €595 ($804) for an acacia barrel, with quantity discounts available.

Though rarely used for barrel making in the U.S., acacia wood has been used in France and Spain for many years to add a different taste profile to white wines, and in the aging of the sweet wines of Bordeaux.

The acacia wood used for barrels that Oakasions imports grows in the same French forests where the French harvest oak trees for barrels. It is not to related to common acacia trees in the U.S., which are largely tropical imports.

According to Norm Leighty of Oakasions, acacia wood adds floral characteristics to white wines, with added structural mouthfeel. “There’s no oak flavors; it’s just the fruit with a floral nose and great mouthfeel.” The barrels are more lightly toasted than oak barrels.

He says the wood is being used in the U.S. on white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay.

Leighty also claims, “Using acacia wood creates unique white wines and gives you a great new marketing opportunity to sell something completely different at a time when everyone is looking for an advantage in the market.”

One winemaker who tried the acacia barrels is Steven Canter of Quivira Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley, who has used it to age a few barrels of Sauvignon Blanc since 2007. He admits that he tried it out of curiosity. Canter says, “It supports the backbone of the wine with more spice and flavor, but none of the vanilla and false sweetness of oak. It’s more bacony than marshmallow. The wine is available at Quivira for $28.

Canter liked the effect of the acacia well enough that he has bought more barrels since then. He put some Viognier in acacia during the last harvest.

He isn’t tempted to try it on red wines, “I don’t think it would provide a good match for red wines,” he says. However, Francis Thoulouse, a partner of Jean Thoulouse, a French cooperage that makes barrels from Bulgarian acacia says, “A comparison between maturing a red wine Malbec 2005 in acacia and in oak barrels has shown up the fruity contribution of the acacia, and blending both wines creates an interesting complexity.”

He adds, “We have received very positive feedback about rosé vinifications in acacia barrels from the 2006 harvest.”

Another U.S. winemaker who tried the barrels is Olivier Rousset, a native of France who serves as winemaker at Koehler Winery in California’s Santa Maria Valley.

He’s also used it only with white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. “It’s worked well with them,” he says. “It’s not heavy or oaky. It gives some freshness and tropical notes to the wine.”

Rousset always has blended the wine with other wines until now, but he intends to produce a Sauvignon Blanc aged only in acacia this year.

A study in Croatia also found it was better than oak for aging Malvasia.

Leighty says very few cooperages have the knowledge to find, age and toast acacia wood. He says Tonellerie Du Sud-Ouest has the most experience with acacia wood and has been providing acacia wood barrels for many years to wineries in France, Spain and the U.S.

Tonnellerie Du Sud-Ouest is a major French cooperage, located in the South of France that makes barrels in both the Bordeaux and Burgundy styles up to 600 liters in capacity.

Oakasion LLC is a sales representative company founded by Norm Leighty. For the past five years he served as the general manager of Tonnellerie Radoux in Santa Rosa, Calif. Learn more about Oakasion at oakasion.com.
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