Visit any winery or tasting room and eventually, you will hear what is probably the most common question asked to vintners: “Is this aged in American or French oak?”. The tasting room attendant or winemaker answers, the person asking the question nods as if in approval, and we all go on sniffing the wine, sipping it and pretending that we smell the violets, cherries, chocolate or whatever else people claim is in the wine… and wondering why it matters so much if a barrel came from France or America.
Sound familiar? At Sedimentality, we would like to guess that the majority of people asking if wine is aged in American or French oak do not truly understand the differences that these types of oak make on a wine, although there is quite a significant difference! We would like to outline the basic differences between the two to help further your understanding of wine, starting first with the importance of oak, the origins of the trees used to make the barrels and finally, the differences in the flavors that these oaks impart on wine.
Why do we use oak in the first place?
First off, I suggest that you read our article “How A Wine Barrel is Made“. It outlines the relationship between oak and wine and why this particular wood is so essential to making quality wines, and it also explains the barrel making process, which is quite fascinating! Once you understand the importance of a barrel in the winemaking process, you can begin to differentiate between the types of wood used to make these barrels.
Different “mentalities” on choosing oak trees for barrels
French oak mainly comes from the forests of Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers. The tightness of the oak grain varies from forest to forest, and winemakers and coopers alike believe that trees from these different forests vary in how much oak flavor they impart on the wine. Which forest is “better” is obviously a matter of preference, but the general mentality is that the forest where the trees were from determines which barrel the winemaker would like to use.
In American oak, however, the cooper (barrel maker) is more highly regarded than the forest that the tree comes from. American oak is grown is the forests of Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oregon. The idea of regional flavors is not held to the high regard that it is in France.
The differences in flavors imparted
The simplest way to describe the differences in French and American oak is to think of them as personalities. The French oak has a tough side: a real backbone, and is complex. If you were to meet the French oak at a party, you might have a tougher time getting to know him, but you might come to really enjoy his company. The American oak, however, is far less subdued. You wouldn’t approach the American oak: he would approach you. You may or may not be keen to his somewhat boisterous personality, but there would be no denying that he was there, because he definitely makes his presence known.
All metaphors aside, the French oak has more tannins and imparts more complex flavors into the wine. American oak has more of the actual “oak” aroma and flavor, and often imparts a vanilla flavor as well (which is highly desired by many consumers).
Do both stand the test of time?
Some winemakers argue that the American oak barrels “fade” quickly, and after a year or so of use they do not impart the same flavors into the wine that they did during their first year, while the French barrels remain consistent over a few years of use. Yet French barrels are significantly more expensive (anywhere from $500 to $1,000, depending on the forest and the cooper, compared to the American barrels, which can go for as low as $200).
Is one better than the other?
It depends on who you ask, but at Sedimentality, we say “no”. To each his (or her) own! Perhaps Robert deLeuze from SD winery in Carneros, California put it best when he said “In cooking, you use different spices depending on what you are making and what spices you like. The same is true of oak in wine.” (DeLeuze uses 100% oak barrels in his Chardonnay, which is an absolutely beautiful wine.) We like this approach, and applaud his diplomatic outlook on barrel usage. 🙂 Other winemakers actually use a combination: aging their wines in American oak for a bit and then transferring them to French barrels. Another beautiful compromise!
Some winemakers are not so diplomatic when expressing their opinions of which barrel is superior. Bill Hunter, from Hunter cellars, stated “I wouldn’t let an American oak barrel near my Chardonnay. I am trying to make a more delicate, refined style of Chardonnay and I feel American oak would overpower the nuances that I want to achieve.” Ouch.
As someone learning about wine, you can read descriptor after descriptor… but just reading about wines will never truly give you everything you need to know. You must taste! To see the difference in American versus French oak, go to your local wine store and explain that you would like to try two wines from the same varietal which have been aged in American and French oak. Try to keep them in the same price range as well, if possible. The next time you have a dinner party, open both and try them side by side: don’t forget to try them when you first cork the bottles and then again a bit later, after the wine has opened up. Look for more subtle flavors in the French oak, and possibly more tannins. And in the American oak, look for those oak and vanilla flavors and aromas which scream “American oak aged”. Decide for yourself which one you prefer, but remember: don’t let that be the “be all and end all”: there might be wines out there which are aged in the barrels you do not prefer which you end up loving. In the wine world, the beauty is that it is always changing, and always subjective. The debate between American and French oak will continue for quite some time. As consumers, we do not have to worry about taking our place in this sometimes heated debate; instead, we get the fun part: drinking the beautiful wines!