You have probably heard of American Oak and French Oak (there is also Slovakian, Hungarian, and Russian Oak but that will be for another day!), but do you know what the differences are between the two?
Why is oak used in wine making? It is used to vary the color, flavor, tannin profile, and the texture of the wine. It can be used in the fermentation or aging periods or as a few floating chips or staves added to wine fermented in a vessel like stainless steel. Oak barrels can also impart other qualities through evaporation and low level exposure to oxygen. The porous nature of an oak barrel allows evaporation and oxygenation to occur in the wine but typically not at levels that would cause oxidation or spoilage.
The typical 225 liter (59 gallon) barrel allows the wine to concentrate it’s flavor and aroma compounds. Also small amounts of oxygen are allowed to pass through the barrel and act as a softening agent upon the wine’s tannins.
American oak used in wine barrels is a white oak from the species Quercus alba, which is fast growing and has wider grains and less wood tannins. This oak is found in most of the eastern United States, with Tennessee being one of the top suppliers. French oak uses common oak, Quercus robur, or white oak, Quercus petraea, but the latter is considered far superior for it’s finer grain and richer contribution of aromatic components like vanillin and its derivatives. American oak tends to be more intensely flavored than French oak due to having two to four times more lactones. Winemakers choose American oak typically for bold, powerful reds and for warm climate Chardonnays. The wider grain in the American oak allows more oxygen to interact with the wine than the tighter grained French oak. The French oak generates silky and transparent tannins, which transmits a sensation of light sweetness combined with fruity flavors that persist in the mouth.
A barrel can also either be toasted or untoasted. The toasting adds vanilla and spice character to French oak and coconut character to American oak. Also the level of toasting can vary which creates different character to the barrel.
A barrel made from American oak can cost $600-800, while a barrel made of French oak can cost $1200 or more.
Think about which oak is used in the wine you are drinking and what characteristics is has contributed to it.