The practice of maturing fine wines in oak barrels dates back over 1,000 years. The “marriage” of oak and wine seems a happy and felicitous one. Originally, most wines were European, most fine wines were French, and French oak was widely used in the aging process. Recently the increasing expense of French oak barrels and the management of this limited resource prompted wineries to look for other sources, especially American oak. The oaks that are used belong to the white oak species.
The Ontario wine industry is now being recognized for its production of a quality product. When Drs. Hedges and Risk began their experiments in 1999 no Ontario winery had ever considered using Canadian oak, although it is the same species as American oak. Drs. Hedges & Risk believed that although Canadian oak barrels had never been used commercially for aging wine in Ontario, there is no inherent reason why they would not be a superior product. The oak for barrels is graded, among other factors, on the tightness of the growth lines. The finer the grain, the better the barrel. Our oaks typically have more than twice as many growth lines per inch as the American oaks used in commercial wine barrel production. Most American oak wine barrels are made from oak which is grown in places like Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas where it matures much more quickly in the warmer climate there, producing the coarser grain. Ontario is the northernmost growing region of the North American white oak and thus this harshest of climates that will sustain the trees produces the finest of grains possible. It is tighter and finer grained than most French oak. It is also well established that other differing geographic and environmental conditions can impart unique characteristics to the same species of wood when it comes to producing barrels for aging wine. Chemical analysis indicates that there is, in fact, something special about the flavors in our Canadian oak.
There exist only a small handful of winemaking regions in the world that can claim to age their wines in wood from their own region this certainly adds to the completeness of a claim to a purely local character in the final product. Our Niagara region can now enter this select group.
Since initial experimentation began in 1999, appreciation of the quality and the unique characteristics of Canadian oak has grown. The first commercial production of wine aged in Canadian oak was released in 2002 and was sold out immediately. Since then we have seen many great wines produced Canada and aged in Canadian Oak barrels.