It’s one of the more common questions we receive in the tasting room, and it’s certainly one of the most debated questions in the modern wine industry; French Oak vs. American Oak, what’s the story? Google “French Oak versus American Oak” and you’ll call up hundreds upon hundreds of listings.
Recently, we received an e-mail from a gentleman who works in the fine wine retail business, and who is an extraordinarily knowledgable wine connoisseur. He was seeking some clarification from Eric Baugher, our winemaker here at Monte Bello, about pore size in American oak barrels, and I was fortunate enough to be included in the exchange. While the initial query seemed to be about a relatively specific topic, I found Eric’s response to be very informative about the French vs. American oak debate in general, and I’d like to share some excerpts with you, in the hopes that his thoughts can help clarify some of the issues framing the debate, as well as impart a bit of information about our barrel program specifically:
“The key difference, as I’ve understood, French oak is considerably less dense. The porosity and void space in between cells is greater than American oak and thus the wine has greater extractive surface area. The French oak specie also contains about 10 times the concentration of ellagotannin compared to American specie, thus providing a wine greater tannin structure. American oak, by contrast, contains tylose within the cellular matrix. This fills in the void space and decreases the extractive surface. As a result, American oak has a higher density, slower extraction, and a clove/nutmeg type spiciness. It’s also sweeter wood, containing about 5 times more complex 5-carbon carbohydrates and therefore a sweetness can also develop within wine aged in American oak cooperage.
The variety of experiences you describe in tasting American oak has much to do with the coopering selection of fine grain versus coarse grain staves in assembling their barrels. Another factor is the oak terroir, air-drying time and location, as well as coopering skills in bending staves and toasting. All these factors can greatly affect the integration of American oak flavors into wine. Poorly sourced wood, short drying time, and incorrect fire pot temperatures can make an American oak barrel taste planky, crude, and strong in dill and coconut shavings. The reason our American oak barrels perform so well, is that we take the time to work hand-in-hand with the coopers to specify forest, seasoning time, selection of fine grain, and toast level. We also carefully balance percentages of new oak and older cooperage, and match to the wine’s concentration.”
Thank you to Eric Baugher for sharing this information!
If anyone out there has questions about this subject, please feel free to send them across. I’ll be posting more information about our barrel program soon, but in the interim, please keep the queries coming!