Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
Can you please explain the difference between French oak and American oak barrels? Why do some wineries use new, or 50 percent American and 50 percent French oak?
—Craig E., Naperville, Ill.
Oak barrels are part of the metaphorical spice rack that winemakers use to craft a wine to their style, so they pick and choose according to their experience. Barrels are made from oak trees grown in many parts of the world, though French and American oak are most widely used.
There are other variables when it comes to barrels; the inside of each barrel is charred, or "toasted," and winemakers can order varying levels of toast, from light to heavy. Also, a new barrel will impart stronger flavors than a used barrel. By the time a barrel is about five years old, its flavors become neutral. A winemaker may mix and match barrels from different places, with different levels of toast or age, to get the oak influence they wish.
In extremely general terms, French oak barrels offer more subtle nuances than American ones. Smoke and spice, with textures of satin or silk, are some of the reasons winemakers choose French barrels. American barrels are a little stronger in flavor, offering a cream-soda type of vanilla flavor, coconut notes and creamy texture.
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