Barrels can be made from different wood types and usually it is only differentiated between French and American oak, because the influence of the two wood types differs considerably. Hybrid barrels can however be assembled from different wood types.
Spanish cellars traditionally used American oak barrels. A few Spanish pioneer winemakers did however start using hybrid barrels and this principle spread globally. Cellars in Rioja, which traditionally also used only American oak for wine maturation started to experiment with French and American hybrid barrels. A unique new aroma profile was imparted to wines. American oak from Ohio and Missouri imparts intense coconut and vanilla aromas, while central French oak from Allier, Troncait, Jupille and Blois imparts black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, menthol, smoke and cacao aromas. The use of French oak for barrel heads also imparts more tannin to the wine, which influences the taste structure thereof. Spanish coopers initially saw the concept as foreign, but were later convinced that a wine style can be created in this way.
Other wine regions also have a traditional culture of hybrid barrels. Hybrid barrels of cherry and chestnut wood are for example used in Verona, Italy. This concept originates from Sicily and forms the base of Marsala wine production. The cherry imparts strong aromas, while the chestnut has hard and elastic aromas. Cherry trees also form part of the landscape and strengthen the fruity flavour of the indigenous Corvina grape. In the 1980s, various Californian winemakers also requested cooperages to assemble hybrid barrels.
Hybrid barrels also have other advantages. Domaine Pierre Guillemot in France prefers such barrels to emphasise the uniqueness of cultivars and maintain the quality of its terroir. They use acacia and oak barrels for short to medium maturation of 10 to 12 months. The acacia retains the freshness of the wine and also adds sweetness to it, while the oak contributes more depth and complexity. The integration of the wines is also better, because the blending of the wines from different wood types is then unnecessary.
Hybrid barrels inevitably have an influence on the price of wood. If acacia is used together with oak wood, the barrels are 19% cheaper. In Spain, where only American oak was previously used, the hybrid barrels are 15% more expensive if French oak is used. This is mainly because American oak can be sawn, but French oak must be split. The utilisation of the wood is consequently influenced. Apart from the wood cost, the assembly of the hybrid barrels can also lead to a price increase. Different wood types bend for example at different temperatures, which will increase the labour cost of barrel assembly. Barrel cost obviously depends on the wood choice and its origin. A standard 225 litre barrel with an American or Hungarian oak bilge and French oak heads is, for instance, cheaper than a barrel with a French oak bilge with American or Hungarian oak heads. The emphasis of cellars that use hybrid barrels is however not on the barrel cost, but rather to use barrels in order to create a required wine style.
The delivery time of hybrid barrels does not differ from standard barrels, because it is usually assembled on order (Archer, 2020).
According to South African wine legislation, the use of wood barrels is defined as an additive and only indicated as “wood”. The type of wood is however not qualified and barrels assembled from any type of wood is legal.
The heads and staves of hybrid barrels can consist of different wood types.
Archer, L.M., 2020. Winemakers turn to hybrid barrels to express individual styles. Wine Business Monthly, May 2020: 26 – 30.