Oak is one of the most common types of trees with over 400 different species grown everywhere from cool climates to tropical latitudes in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and North Africa. However, the wine world, has predominantly been making use of just a handful of species: the European species of Quercus peatraea (also known as Quercus sessiliflora or sessile oak), Quercus robur, and Quercus alba (a.k.a. American oak). The European species can be found throughout Europe, including Croatia, Romania, and Hungary. Still, France has garnered the most recognition, especially for Quercus petraea from the famous forests of Allier or Limousin.
One place closely tied to winemaking for a long time, but less so to oak barrel production is the Iberian Peninsula, specifically Spain. Traditional Spanish wine regions have long been using French and American oak, the latter still having a special place in Rioja. However, Spain boasts an impressive diversity of different oak species, with Quercus robur and Quercus petraea widespread in the north and east of the peninsula. Castilla y León, together with the north of Extremadura, is home to Quercus pyrenaica.
In 1992 in Tudela del Duero, sommelier and winemaker Maite Geijo started making her first wines in her family-owned facilities, located outside the Denominación de Origen Ribera del Duero limits back then. Four years later, Maite and her team were able to purchase some vineyards in the Toro winemaking region, very much under the radar area at this time, to focus on wines made for the export market. Fast forward to 2006, and they came across barrels of the Navarrese oak species of Quercus petraea and fell in love with the characteristics it lent to their wine.
“Those oak barrels made with Quercus petraea from Navarra ended up in the tonelería (cooper) by pure coincidence, and it was even more of a coincidence that I decided to try them. At an ‘oak blind tasting’, we tasted wine aged in American, French, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish oak. Unanimously chosen, the most unique wine was aged in Spanish oak. After a limited production of two barrels, which turned out great, we decided to start making unoaked wines, since tastes were changing, but it seemed to be too late as the Spanish oak was proving successful,” says Maite. This is how Acontia wines were born, and it became the first wine aged in 100 percent Spanish oak.
The Spanish version of Quercus petraea, in this case, comes from the forests of Azkoa valley in the northern Navarra province, northeast of Pamplona, a typical Pyrenean valley hosting the wild and mysterious Selva de Irati, the second largest and best-preserved beech and fir forest in Europe, after the Black Forest in Germany. The Quercus pyrenaica species is used to produce barrels as well. Commonly known as Pyrenean oak, it is well-adapted to the Mediterranean climate but paradoxically, fairly scarce in the Pyrenees. This ‘forest blend’ results from interplanted areas of different oak species, which is typical here. Asking Maite about the characteristics of the Spanish oak they use, she says that Quercus petraea from this specific soil and climate has a balanced level of ellagitannins, a type of polyphenols—in higher quantities than American oak but lower than French. Ellagitannins confer a certain astringency to wines and help to stabilize the wine color. As for resulting secondary aromas in wine, the oak will add toffee and caramel notes, underlined by subtle but creamy nuances.
The air-drying process in the case of Spanish oak is lengthier than that of its French counterpart just across the Pyrenees, which has an important impact on the price. A new Spanish oak barrel can easily cost around 850 euros, whereas French oak barrel prices can typically range from 600 to 1200 euros or more. French oak is subject to much more supply and demand and is affected more by labor shortages. Luckily, Spain can offer an excellent quality-to-price ratio for winemakers, and in turn, Acontia wines are too. Their Spanish oak-aged range includes wines from the Ribera del Duero and Toro Dos. Reds are helpfully labelled according to their aging period, “6 meses” or “12 meses” (6 months or 12 months), made mainly with 100 percent Tempranillo (known as Tinta Fina or Tinta del País) in Ribera del Duero, or with a blend of Tinta de Toro (another moniker for Tempranillo) and Garnacha in Toro. Maite says these are the varieties that she believes respond best to aging in Spanish oak, but they finally decided to launch the first Spanish oak-aged Verdejo in 2021, a wine they have been previously making “for the family.”
“Acontia is all about a strong connection to my roots and to my family. Some oak comes from Navarra and some from Sanabria, in the province of Zamora in Castilla y León, where my partner Roberto is from. It is an immensely emotional project,” confesses Maite and that’s easy to witness as they’re planting a seed that will grow for years to come.