French Oak vs. American Oak

Topping-

Question from Michael: Why do wineries always brag about using French oak?

Reply: The major alternative is American oak. It seems that a lot of wine enthusiasts are aware that the cost of a French oak barrel is over twice that of American barrels. And this seems to build in the idea that no expense was spared and, therefore, a great deal of care must have been taken in making the wine.

Does is make it better? That’s a matter of taste.

There was a time, a few decades ago, that American production methods weren’t well suited to wine. The aroma would bring to mind a construction site and it often had a rough, crude mouthfeel. But that problem has virtually disappeared.

The difference is in the oak species.  American barrels are made from what’s known as White Oak, or Quercus Alba. The physical properties of the wood allow it to impart a good deal of flavor rather quickly so there’s a greater risk of “over-oaking” the wine. It’s also five times higher in a carbohydrate that contributes sweetness. As in France, the region of origin matters and winemakers and barrel builders are beginning to pay more attention to the source.

With less porosity, so less surface inside, French oak imparts its flavor slowly. But it’s nearly 10 times higher in tannin, which gives the wine greater structure. There certainly can be other influences on tannin though, a key one being how long the wood was air dried. The 18-month wood is likely to be more tannic than the three or five-year wood.

The toasting level has a huge impact on flavor extraction, too. And many winemakers and coopers are convinced that the width of the wood grain trumps every nearly other factor you might consider. So, like nearly every other facet of wine, there’s no simple answer.  

When the barrista mentions that French oak was used what he’s really saying is that the winery spent a lot of money on the barrels. French oak barrels are upwards of $1,000.00 apiece. American barrels are well under $500.00 a pop. But, better is a matter of taste. 

TRIVIA! If the wine sells for under ~$12.00 or $15.00 and is overtly oaky there’s a good chance that it wasn’t barrel aged at all. Oak chips may have been submerged into the wine or a large tank may have been lined with oak staves. Barrel aging is expensive and not only because of the cost of buying the barrels. It’s labor intensive. Wine continually evaporates and the level goes down. Most wineries add more wine, or “top it up”, once a month, more or less, to prevent oxygen from spoiling the wine. Brand new barrels are quite thirsty and the topping schedule can be very active in the first months of use. Since aging barrels are usually only 60 gallons there are hundreds or thousands of barrels to top each time. 

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