Wood and wine

Most people understand vine quality influences wine quality. Less appreciated are the effects of wood quality on wine.

Most wine barrels are made of oak; broad categories are American oak and French oak, with American oak less subtle than French.

French makers in Champagne tout advantages of wood from the Argonne Forest, the largest forest in the Champagne area. They claim “local oak” is better suited for local grapes than oak from elsewhere.

Thereby hangs a tale. In the world of wine, patience and long views are essential.

It typically takes three years for newly-planted vines to deliver useable grapes. Vines hit their strides in their 20s. Old vine zins in California tout century-long pedigrees.

Even when vines are established, the verdict on a particular bottle may not come for a decade. That is the art and drama of wine.

Wine oak foresters have dramatically longer horizons. It takes 180-200 years for a French oak tree to reach maturity and be at its best for a cooper to cut and shape and toast into a wine barrel. Which means the Argonne Forest material favored by Champagne makers began its journey during the War of 1812, when enophile Thomas Jefferson still walked the earth.

Various species of oak trees mature at different speeds. Wood in the barrel that helped produce last night’s bottle may have begun life a piffling century ago. About the time the Allies made their final offensive in World War I. In the Argonne Forest.

Tasting notes:

• Terrazas Altos del Plata Malbec 2011. Plum, blackberry, raspberry, spice; punchy pinch of pepper finish; rounded; price point winner. $12

• Charles Krug Carneros Chardonnay 2009. Melon, honey, apple, pineapple; soft, rich, smooth; restrained smokey oak; good acidity; delivers value, quality. $21

• Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006. Rustic ripe plum, blackberry-cherry; minerality, cedar, chocolate; toasty oak; dry; refined tannin; classic Napa-Bourdeaux-style cab. $37

Last round: What’s a bottle of wine between friends? In my experience, empty.