Jul 28 2012
Each year, winemakers face a critical decision…to age and ferment their wine in American or French oak barrels. The wine barrel is a symbol of this centuries-old art form and winemakers are still wrestling with this question. Many have used one variety for decades, only to make a switch after years of loyalty to one type. If you’re wondering which you should use, it’s important to know the real story behind the differences so you can make an educated choice.
Boil it down for me, which type is better?
The bottom line is that most winemakers prefer using French oak barrels to age their wine. Many winemakers use American oak, but they do so because French oak is not as cost effective, but it’s still perceived as a better product. There are some key differences in the wood used to make each that can have significant impacts on the production process and the flavor of the resulting wine.
French oak trees have two key characteristics that impact the winemaker. They grow in warmer climates and grow more quickly, making them less dense and more porous. This means that the wine is in contact with more wood surface area and will take on more oak flavors. This is usually a good thing. The downside to the porous surface is that it allows for much greater evaporation of wine in the barrel and this is usually not a good thing. In contrast, American oak grows in cooler climates, grows more slowly and is more dense. The result – less surface contact, less impact on the wine and less evaporation.
The French soil is different too. It has a much higher tannin content than American soil. Most winemakers who produce bold red wines like tannins and, thus, like French oak. By contrast, American oak trees have certain carbohydrates that make for a sweeter wine. This can be desirable when making certain reds and many whites, but those types of wines are less expensive, so it wouldn’t make sense to spend so much on French oak anyway.
What if I make my own homemade wine?
Many homemade winemakers choose not to use barrels, given how difficult they can be to use at home and their cost. But home winemakers still have a choice to make regarding “oaking” their wine. Many use additive like powder or chips and both are usually available in either French or American varieties. While the issues regarding wood density are not as relevant, the flavor impacts are the same. The cost differences are not as great, but the amateur winemaker should select the right type of oak, based on the type of wine and the impact that the oak should have.
Because of the higher demand for French oak, given its supply, the price of a French oak barrel can be twice the price of the American counterpart. Typically, a wine barrel becomes flavor neutral to wine in about 5 years. A full size French barrel will set the winemaker back $700 – $1,000, vs. $300 – $500 for an American barrel. For many winemakers, this can make French barrels cost prohibitive. Given the recent trend away from pricier wines, this may lower demand for French oak and could eventually drive down the price. Regardless, as long as winemakers prefer the qualities of the French barrel, they will have to pay more for all it has to offer.
If you’re looking for information on making homemade wine, visit our resource library, The Homemade Wine Source.