What’s the difference between wine aged in French oak vs. American oak barrels?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What’s the difference between wine aged in French oak vs. American oak barrels?

—Paul, Prior Lake, Minn.

Dear Paul,

Oak barrels are a key piece of a winemaker’s arsenal of tools used to craft a wine to their style, so they typically choose according to their needs (and budget—new oak barrels can cost up to $2,000 or more). Wines can be fermented and/or aged in oak barrels (the newer the barrel, the greater its influence on the wine), and a typical oak barrel aging regimen can last anywhere from six months to two years or longer. Barrels are made from oak trees grown in many parts of the world, though French and American oak are most widely used.

Generally speaking, French barrels are known for imparting more subtle smoke and spice notes, with silkier textures, while American barrels tend to be more potent, lending a wine notes of vanilla, cream soda or coconut, with a creamier texture.

Barrel-destined oak trees ideally grow in cool climates, which allows them to mature slowly and develop a desirably tight grain. Most of the French oak for barrels comes from one of five forests—Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges—and each is considered to have distinct characteristics. The two species of oak trees mainly used for barrels in France are Quercus robur and Quercus sessiliflora.

American barrel oak, typically Quercus alba, is grown in 18 different states, mostly in the Midwest and in the Appalachians, as well as Oregon.

And France and the United States aren’t the only sources for barrel oak. Quercus robur oak trees from Slavonia in Croatia and Quercus petraea trees from Hungary yield well-regarded barrels as well.

—Dr. Vinny

Winemaking Techniques Explained Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

How do wineries pick the glass color for their wine bottles?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny why some wine bottles are tinted green or amber, while …

Jun 7, 2021

When and how does "palate fatigue" kick in at a wine tasting?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the term "palate fatigue," and what happens to …

May 31, 2021

Does appellation-specific wine have to be labeled with a vintage?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny gets an assist from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade …

May 24, 2021

Do vacuum pumps work for saving leftover wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why not all wine-preservation methods are equal.

May 17, 2021

Short-term, is it OK to store wine at room temperature?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, offers tips on how to keep wine at its …

May 10, 2021

Can I ask a restaurant to store my own bottle of wine there for a few weeks before I come in to drink it?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers advice for corkage and BYOB etiquette.

May 3, 2021