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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What’s the difference between wine aged in French oak vs. American oak barrels?
—Paul, Prior Lake, Minn.
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.
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