After last week’s mammoth recap of the incredible class on Bolivian wine led by Francisco Roig, we thought we’d give you a break from the long reads. So this week, here’s a quick run through the differences between American and French oak, and how they affect wines aged in them.
You should know a little about where in each country the wood comes from. In the U.S., the best comes from California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the East Coast from Georgia up. Trees growing in colder climates will have a tighter grain (see the section on grain below).
Much like they have with grape growing regions, the French have established which forests produce the best wood, and take care to maintain them. They have 5 major forests, all near the center of the country: Nevers and Tronçais smack in the middle, Vosges to the northeast, Limousin to the southwest, and Forêts Centrales to the west. All grow mostly Quercus Petraea except Limousin, which producers more Quercus Robur (see “Species” section below).
American oak tends toward more intense flavors that can best be described as “dark:” Dark chocolate, dill, eucalyptus, mint, charcoal, tobacco, wood. The one exception here is it’s often also quite sweet, with a punchy vanilla note often accompanied by coconut. French oak, on the other hand, has flavors that tend towards “decadent:” vanilla, caramel, cream, baking spices, albeit with a little less sweetness and more subtlety.
American oak flavors are across the board more intense. They also absorb into the wine much more quickly. Therefore, wines with intense flavors and textures of their own do better with American oak. Meanwhile, French oak is more subtle and absorbs more slowly into the wine.
All oak used in winemaking is White Oak. However, in the U.S., Quercus Alba is the dominant type. In France, Quercus Petraea (also known as Sissile Oak) and Quercus Robur are the most common, with Quercus Petraea being considered the finest and therefore the most cultivated.
American oak is more porous than French oak, as a rule. This means that wine inside will oxidize faster, which brings with it a whole other set of flavors such as dates, nuts and herbs. It also means that more of the water will evaporate out more quickly, so winemakers have to be extra vigilant in making sure they keep barrels topped off.
French oak is much less porous. It’s therefore better for longer aging, and doesn’t require quite the same attention. (Note: a very glaring exception to the “better for long aging” rule is Rioja and Ribera del Duero, where they use American oak as much as French, and age red wines in barrels longer than just about anyone.)
French oak imparts firmer, but silkier tannins, whereas American oak gives more obvious, rougher tannins that will need time in the bottle to mellow out.
One final note...
Don’t be afraid of oak! When integrated correctly, it makes good wine special. There’s a very good chance that the wine you’ve liked the most in your life benefited from time spent in barrels. Below are two examples of wines with perfectly integrated oak profiles, one using American oak, the other, French.