Author: Lamar Engel
Barrels – The Difference Between American & French Oak
What is the difference between American Oak and French Oak? Why did oak become the standard for barrel making?
Oak, in fact, contains all the qualities desirable for aging wine. It has a low ‘porosity’ and holds an acceptable tannin level. It also imparts mild creamy aromatic substances that are very compatible with wine. One incredible plus for oak is that it bends. Other woods are too porous or contain intense aromatic substances that do not complement wine. They also tend to be harder and can’t be easily bent into the shape of a barrel...
In order to bend the staves, heat is applied in three stages: pre-chauffrage (warming), cintrage (shaping), and bousinage (toasting). It is bousinage that determines the level of toasting and puts light, medium, or heavy toast on the inner surface. Toasting has a direct effect on how the wine will taste. During toasting, furanic aldehydes, which give off roasted aromas, reach their maximum concentration. The vanilla aroma of vanillin increases, and various phenols add a smoky spicy touch to the complexity of oak aromas in the wine.
The difference between French and American Oak begins with location. A cool European climate produces slow growing trees with tightly grained wood. A feature that contributes to finely textured tannins and soft aromatics.
The differences increase during the barrel-making stages. The process by which American barrels are made tends to accentuate its natural characteristics, while the process of European barrel making reduces them. After trees are cut down, the logs are stripped of bark and then split or sawn into long planks, or ‘staves’ that will be used for barrel making. American oak is sawn, which ruptures the wood cells, releasing aromatic substances (especially vanillin) and up to seven different lactones, which can have a coconut-like aroma. As opposed to European oak, which is air-dried, American Oak is kiln-dried. Kiln drying actually concentrates the lactones, while air-drying “seasons” the wood, releasing some of the more aromatic substances and reduces harsh tannins.
French Oak is known for its subtle influences on wine, while American oak is noted for having a bolder impact. Many years ago, American oak barrels were considered inferior to French oak barrels. Today, however, improved barrel making techniques have greatly enhanced the quality of American oak barrels, which is reflected in sales figures and worldwide demand. The French are now using American oak in larger quantities; and the conservative region of Bordeaux has started experimenting with them.
The style of wine, which the winemaker is trying to achieve, dictates the choice of barrel. American oak can accomplish certain characteristics in a wine that French oak may not and vice versus. Many winemakers experiment with barrels, and even different ‘coopers’ (also known as barrel blacksmiths). Combinations of using French and American oak is popular in the United States with many winemakers. Russian, Romanian, Spanish, Canadian, Ukranian, and African oak are now being looked at from winemakers.
Whatever the preference the winemaker wants to use, there are many intricacies involved in choosing the right kind of barrel for their style of winemaking. Much like chefs choosing the right seasonings to flavor their food, winemakers must choose the right barrel to enhance their wines.