The Differences Between French and American Oak Barrels

Most of us know Vosges as an indulgent brand of chocolate.

Wine lovers may also know Vosges as one of the five forests in France where most of the trees are destined to be made into oak barrels. The others are Allier, Limousin, Nevers and Tronçais.

It’s common for a winery to reveal not only that a particular wine was aged in French oak barrels, but also from which forest(s) those barrels originated.

That’s because each forest provides its own, unique set of aromas and flavors to the barrels made from its trees. It’s what many vintners describe as their “spice box” of flavors, some of which are best for Cabernet Sauvignon, others better suited for Pinot Noir.

Most of the world’s oak barrels for aging wine are assembled in either France or America, so a vast majority of barrel-aged wines will have spent some time in either French or American oak barrels.

Just as the aromas and flavors imparted vary by French forest, they also vary by country. American oak barrels tend to be a bit more assertive, resulting in wines that may be creamier in texture with a distinct vanilla edge, whereas French barrels tend to emphasize spices and are more subtle.

Other variables include the level of “toasting” inside the barrel, and the age of the barrel — whether it has been used previously, and for how long it was filled. Some older barrels can even attain “neutrality,” imparting no noticeable aromas or flavors.

Ultimately, a vintner’s vision for the finished wine is what determines whether French or American oak — or even oak from someplace else — is used for aging a given wine. Often, it’s a big part of defining a winemaker’s or an estate’s “style.”

Posted in Wine Cellar Notes
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