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By Shannan Schimmelmann and Rhona Stanislaus

If you’ve participated in wine tastings, you’ve likely heard tasting room associates referring to some wine being barrel-aged in oak—French or American or a combination of both. But what are they actually referring to? Why oak? What’s the difference between French and American? Is one better than the other?   

Why oak?

The use of oak wine barrels dates back to the Roman Empire. At that time wine was considered safer to drink than water and was believed to provide much needed calories to troops. When the Romans were expanding their empire around the world they found they needed a more convenient method of transporting wine. Clay vessels had been used as far back as the ancient Egyptians and continued to be used through the Greek, then Roman Empires. As the Roman Empire grew, clay proved to be more challenging to transport. Palm wood barrels were considered as an alternative, but the wood was costly and difficult to bend. The Romans then discovered a small group that used wood barrels, commonly made of oak to transport beer.

Oak then became a popular material for wine barrels for a number of reasons. First, it was much softer and easier to bend into the traditional barrel shape than palm wood, thus the oak needed only minimal toasting and a barrel could be created much faster. Second, oak was abundant in the forests of continental Europe. Lastly, oak, with its tight grain, offered a waterproof storage medium. 

Today, oak is the gold standard when it comes to wine barrels. The barrel itself serves two purposes when it comes to the aging of wine: it allows oxygen to enter the wine slowly over time, imparting some of the flavour, or character of the wood into the wine. A new barrel is most effective at this as the effect diminishes with repeated use.

Oak offers three major contributions to wine:
1. It adds flavour (aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke and coconut)
2. It allows the slow admission of oxygen, a process which makes wine taste smoother and less astringent.
3. It provides a suitable environment for certain metabolic reactions to occur which makes wine taste creamier.

Most of the oak used to make wine barrels comes from two countries: France and the United States. The type of oak used has a direct influence on the flavour profile as does the climate where the oak grows.

French oak

Quercus petraea and quercus robur are the two types of white oak grown in France, with quercus petraea considered the finer of the two. French oak is known for its subtle and more spicy notes, firmer tannins but with silkier textures.

European oak is ideal for lighter wines, such as pinot noir or chardonnay, that require more subtlety.

American oak (Missouri and the Midwest)

Quercus alba, or American oak, is more dense and can therefore be sawn instead of hand-split. This involves less labor and expense. Therefore, American oak barrels are considerably cheaper than their French counterparts.

American oak tends to impart more obvious, potent/stronger and sweeter aromas and flavours. American oak is vanilla and coconut, sweet spices and offers a creamier texture. American oak is typically ideal for bolder, more structured wines, like cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, that can handle American oak’s robust flavours and oxygen ingress. 

Variables

There is much more to oak than the distinction between French and American.

  • The age of the oak. The newer the oak the more oaky aromas and flavours imparted. By the fourth or fifth pass, negligible flavour remains.
  • Different barrel producers and different levels of toast: high, medium or light toast. The higher the toast—heating inside the barrel to char the wood—the more oaky the aromas and flavours.
  • The size of the barrel. The smaller the oak barrel, the greater the impact of oak aromas and flavours.
  • Some wines are aged in barrels for a few months, others for a few years.
  • Newer barrels deliver a stronger result, while older barrels are more neutral.
  • Common for winemakers to use a variety of barrels, including a mix of French and American, or barrels from other sources, such as Hungary and Slavonia.

Fun facts

Only about two oak barrels can be made per oak tree, which takes several decades to grow. Additionally, the process of coopering the wood into barrels takes great skill. For this reason, the average price of a new wine barrel costs the winery about US$600 to US$1,200. This adds about US$2 to US$4 in raw materials cost for a single bottle of wine.

While American and French oak are the two oak sources most used for wine cooperage, Slavonian (northeastern Croatia), Hungarian, Russian and Portuguese oak are still traditional in some wine regions. Similar to France, the type of oak grown in these countries is quercus robur and/or quercus petraea.

Beyond American or French oak, wine has also been aged in a variety of different wood species to varying degrees of success. Some of the more successful different species include: chestnut, acacia, Iberian oak and English oak.

Shannan Schimmelmann first fell in love with B.C. wine and spirits while studying hospitality at Camosun College in Victoria, and she has spent the past two decades exploring more than 100 wineries and distilleries in B.C. and beyond. She is a business leader and consultant skilled at partnership development, export strategy and supply chain management. She has an MBA from Royal Roads University, a wine business management certificate from Sonoma State University, a restaurant management diploma from Camosun College and Canadian Wine Scholar WSET-1 accreditation.