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In wine labels it is very common to read “aged in French oak barrels” or in “American oak barrels”. And even in some specific cases the exact origin of the type of wood that makes up the barrels is placed. Undoubtedly, it will be for something. But what is the difference between a French oak and an American oak barrel? How do they change the wine? Does it really matter which forest the wood comes from?

The American oak, or Quercus Alba, grows throughout the eastern half of the United States. In as much the French oak, or Quercus Sessilis, comes from the centre-north of Europe, and fundamentally of France. An elementary factor that differentiates both oaks is the type of grain, which is the width of the growth rings of the tree given by the measurement of the conductive vessels of the wood. It is intuited that, to slower growth, finer grain, and higher quality.

In the development of the oak tree, the climate, geography and botany influence, noting the difference between specimens of the same forest, some located in the centre of the same and others in the periphery. In general, thanks to the cooler summers, French oak is finer grain than American, but even within the French species we can find variants according to their area of ​​origin. That is why, the oaks of the central forests of France (Allier) are the most sought after in the world. On the other hand, American oak has a phenomenon called tylosis, which is a kind of natural internal plugging of the pores.

Finally, the wood that is located between the medullary radii is much softer in French oak than in American oak. Then, the sum of the size of the pores, the tylosis, and the intra-medullary wood, results in that in the American species the slats of the barrels can be obtained by simple sawing, whereas in the French species it should be used the cleft following the medullary radii, to avoid that the pores remain perpendicular and thus ensure the hermeticity of the container.

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Does it affect wines’ flavour?

In the case of French oak, of course, much raw material is wasted. This is the main factor by which a French barrel can double an American’s value. The aforementioned difference in the size of the pores generally results in the American barrel transmitting its qualities to the wine in less time, but less subtly, while the French does it with a certain slowness but greater delicacy.

Broadly speaking, American oak provides few tannins and notes of coconut, cocoa, coffee, vanilla and “sweet” flavours. French oak yields more tannins and highlights nuts, honey, tobacco, spices and balsamic. According to specialized studies, American barrels have an aromatic package smaller than that of French barrels, and the latter have a very wide range depending on their exact place of origin. So much so that in several French wineries tastings of the same wine brought up in French oak barrels from different forests are offered.

Anyway, the above is conditioned and modified by the type of “curing” that is given to the wood to make the barrel, which can be outdoors, artificial, or mixed, varying in each case the result. The type of internal “toasting” of the barrel also greatly influences. This operation consists of placing a brazier inside the stopped barrel, without its covers on, pursuing two objectives: to finish shaping the container, and to produce chemical changes in the wood according to the “degree of toasting”.

Concisely, there are four types of toasting, marked by the intensity and duration of it:

  • Light toast: They have vanilla and coconut notes, along with earthy notes.
  • Medium roasting: more complex and balanced notes of spices, smoked, vanilla and chocolate.
  • Strong roasting: Smoked, coffee and vanilla notes increase. The spice decreases.
  • Toasted very strong: The balance of aromas is altered. Smoking and smoking predominate, above all.

We must emphasise two points: One, that American oak and French react in different ways to roasting, the former being more quickly influenced. Two, the type of “medium roast” is the most used worldwide, since it provides the best results in general terms. But anyway, the choice of the type of barrel and its type of toast, depend heavily on what wine the winemaker intends to achieve, considering that the possible combinations are almost endless.

Thus, both types of barrel are often used, and then when bottling, the final cut is made, as in the same way different types of toast are used for the same wine. The process of aging in barrels is certainly very complex, where multiplicity of factors intervenes and various reactions of polymerization, esterification, oxidation and transfer of compounds occur, already explained in the footnote.

Experts in a more complete work found that French wines aged in French barrels had higher contents in volatile phenols and furfural while those aged in American oak barrels were richer in furanic derivatives (especially furfuryl alcohol), phenolic aldehydes (vanillin) and octalactones. They did not find differences in the colour of the wines after aging. differentiate the wines obtained in the two types of wood, no differences were found ignificativas in a preference test.

Pomar and others in Spain found higher extraction of phenolic compounds in French barrels after 21 months of aging. There were no differences in the colouring intensity. Rivera (2005) compared Cabernet-Sauvignon and Malbec from Mendoza wines aged in American and French casks, not finding differences in colour and polyphenolic composition. To the sensory analysis the judges found more intensity of the vanilla descriptor in American barrels. Regarding preferences, they did not exist in the case of Malbec and instead in favour of American barrels in the case of Cabernet-Sauvignon. Our experience in the tasting courses shows us that when you taste the same wine brought up in both types of barrels they are differentiated by their taste characteristics, but when one talks about preference, some prefer one over the other. Many believe that wine is aged in French oak barrels when it is actually aged in American barrel, and vice versa.

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