Battle of the
What exactly is the difference between French oak and American Oak? It’s one of the more common questions people ask us in the tasting room today, and it’s one of the most debated questions in the wine industry; French Oak vs. American Oak, what’s the story?
The difference is in the actual oak species. American barrels are made from White Oak. The physical properties of the wood allow it to impart a lot of flavor quickly so sometimes there’s a greater risk of “over-oaking” the wine. American oak barrels are also constructed using a different drying technique than the French oak barrels. American oak barrels are dried using a kiln-dry method, which allows a quicker release of the aromas to the wine, resulting in a shorter contact period of about six to ten months. This method also gives off more sweetness in the wines as well as more vanilla notes.
Most of the French oak barrels comes from one of five forests and the species of oak also depends on the forest it is coming from. The main forests located in central France are the Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges, and each is considered to have its own distinctive characteristics. In these regions of France, the oak pieces are allowed to dry in open air and age for twenty-four to thirty-six months, which can give the barrels a tighter grain restricting air entrance through the pores, giving French oaked wines less contact with oxygen. Therefore French oak barrels are more porous and they often have to be topped off. Due to the organic makeup of French oak, wine stored inside these barrels tends to develop a higher tannin content over time.
In terms of flavor, most winemaker and experts agree that American oak possesses a unique combination of sweetness, nutmeg, clove, cedar and vanilla. Depending on the particular type of wine being stored, using an American oak barrel can really enhance its flavors to achieve superb drinking experience. The flavor offered by French oak wine barrels varies because of the many different barrels, but some of the most commonly reported flavor hints include butterscotch, cedar, vanilla, and coconut, along with a general creamy texture. The heavier flavors combined with an increased tannin content are ideal for full-bodies wine varieties.
Some winemakers strictly only use one type of oak, this does not necessarily mean that one type of oak is better than the other. We have to remember that wine making is an art, so it all comes down to what the winemakers style is and what they want their final result to be as each type of barrel can give the wine different characteristics. In some cases you will find winemakers using both American and French oak in order to gain a bit of both complexities from the different oaks. In the wine producing world it comes down to what the winemaker is looking for in his or her final product: which flavors and aromas they desire in the wine? Do they want to have a more complex wine? How long will they age that wine in the oak barrels and which type will they use? There are many factors that can come into play when the oak process occurs, but without the oaks characteristics some wines would just be a boring and a some even too harsh. Whether a wine is French oak aged or American oak aged, they will still be a wine waiting to share their story.
Till next time oenophiles…Cheers!
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