French Vs American Oak

“Would you like oaked or unoaked chardonnay?”, “Do you prefer French or American Oaked Shiraz?” Maybe you've seen a premium wine advertised as 'oaked' and you feel pressured to know what that means. Are you confident you know enough to answer? Or are you just rolling the dice?

What difference does Oak make? We're here to clarify the confusion.

Oak in wine refers to the white Oak wood barrels winemakers use to store wine in while it ferments and matures. Originally started as a vessel for simply storing wine, Oak has become a traditional technique premium winemakers employ to add depth and character to their wine.

Aroma, taste and mouthfeel are all effected by the use of Oak. Flavours such as vanilla, coconut, cloves and that illustrious smokiness are a result of the type of Oak used in fermentation. A lot of oaked wines also take on a smoother, creamier mouthfeel when stored in Oak. Oak has a deep rooted history in the wine world.

To better understand Oak there are five basic facts you should know.

 

Provenance

France and the US are the two main countries where Oakwood wine barrels are sourced. Like any contrast between France and North America, there is a difference in taste and style.

French white oak is a denser grain than its North American counterpart. The result is a smoother wine with firm but silkier tannins and subtle flavour.

White Oak from North America contains more vanillin compounds and tastes sweeter. The most common flavours are vanilla, coconut and dill.

Winemakers will often use a combination of both types of Oak barrels throughout the winemaking process.

Other countries that provide wine barrel Oak include Hungary and Slavonia (Croatia).

Amelia Park Cellar Door entrance
Amelia Park Cellar Door entrance

Size

The size of a barrel can greatly influence how the Oak affects the wine it is carrying. The small ‘Barrique’ holds 225 litres. The larger sized barrels such as ‘Botti’ and ‘Foudres’ range to 1,000 to 20,000 litres. The smaller the barrel the more of the wine has direct contact with the wood, therefore, the more flavour gets dispersed throughout the wine. The larger the barrel the less oak to juice contact.

 

Toast

‘Toast’ is a reference to the practice of ‘firing’ the wood barrels. This is done by a Cooper; a professional craftsman of Oak barrels.  The Cooper places an open barrel over a naked flame and toasts or scorches the wood inside the barrel.  Toasted Oak is categorised in three levels; High, Medium and light. The higher the toast level the stronger the flavours and aromas the oak will infuse into the wine.

 

Cost

Wine barrels are expensive. The yield from the average Oak tree is said to be enough to create two or three barrels maximum. Barrel-destined Oak trees are grown in cool climates where they grow slowly to ensure a tight grain. Most Oak trees are typically around 80-years-old when they’re harvested. Some Coopers insist on using Oak trees that are a minimum of 150-years-old.

 

New Vs Old

The last point is whether the barrel is new or used. The wine industry sees Oak as a precious commodity.

Varied barrel ages are important to the winemaking process. Barrels that have been used in several vintages will not instil the same bold flavours a newly crafted barrel would. A winemaker might not necessarily want to use new Oak every time. There are times when subtle Oak flavours are ideal to bring out the natural characteristics of the wine and others where new Oak is needed to enhance the texture and flavour.

So the next time you’re looking to buy a bottle of wine with Oak you’ll know exactly what to expect.