Do you know how important French oak is to fine wine? Oak barrel ageing is common practice for all the best red wine in the world – and many whites, sparkling and fortified wines too, for that matter. Using oak barrels to ferment and/or age wine has multiple benefits for the wine itself. Oak flavours in wine can give complexity, nuance and distinct character. Many wine regions have developed their signature wine styles due to oak ageing, with Rioja being a prime example. So, what was that about French oak?
French oak in wine
It has long been accepted in fine wine circles that French oak is the gold standard. Many of the great wineries of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California all use French oak for their best wines. Many wineries in Spain, Italy and elsewhere in the wine world do so too. French oak is highly regarded, but it’s not the only type of oak out there. It has various competitors, including Austria and Hungary. If there was one other source of oak that could give France a run for its money though, it’s American oak!
How do American and French oak compare?
There are numerous differences between American and French oak. Let’s look at a number of them in order to try to differentiate between the two.
The origins of American vs. French oak
First things first, American oak and French oak have some geographical differences. Sure, one comes from the USA and the other from France. Beyond that, French oak largely comes from just five prestigious forest sites:
Each of these forests is prized as having distinctive and individual characteristics. Winemakers may choose one or more sources of wood in order to help give their wine the best expression. The forests date back historically to the times of Napoleon, and each has a firm sense of place and history. By contrast, American oak has less discerning origins. 18 individual states produce oak destined for barrel usage in wine, and the origin is not of such paramount importance.
The flavours of American and French oak
To a winemaker, the source of the oak is obviously important. Whether it comes from Allier or Vosges, or Oregon or somewhere in the Midwest is of crucial importance. The decisions of the winemaker here will have an impact on how the wine matures and develops – and tastes.
Ultimately, the consumer cares primarily about the taste. If French oak makes for a tastier wine, then so be it. So what does wine aged in French oak taste like, and how does that compare with American oak? As with everything in wine, generalisations are difficult – and risky. In broad strokes, however:
- French oak is thought to be the subtler of the two from a flavour point of view. French oak barrels can impart gentle spicy notes and give the wine a smooth and silky texture.
- American oak is said to be more pronounced. Its flavours are bolder than French oak, with notes of coconut, vanilla and cream considered to be typical. Texturally, American oak makes for a creamier wine.
So that’s our primer on French oak and American oak. Do you think you could tell the difference between American and French oak in a blind tasting? Which flavours are your favourite? Tell us in the comments below!