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French & American Oaks for Aging Wine

Aging wine in oak barrels is expensive.  A single, 55-gallon barrel can easily cost more than $1,600.  Barrels made from oak found in the forests of Allier, Nevers, Limousin, and central France are worth even more.  What makes these barrels so costly?  Are wineries paying for the quality of wood, craftsmanship, or both?  The answer is: both; wineries pay for exquisite craftsmanship plus the flavor-enriching properties of good wood.  Because every forest (Allier, Nevers, Limousin, etc.) produces wood of unique, variable density, oaks from a given forest impart a wine’s flavor and aroma with that forest’s distinct nuances.

Oak leaves and acorns

Over 600 Species of Oak Trees Exist (image from Wikipedia)

Because French oaks tend to have a tighter grain and a less watertight nature, coopers split the wood along the grain.  American oak is often serrated, allowing more of the tree to be used (thus, it’s better for eco-conscious folks).  American oak also provides quick oxidation–relatively speaking–which allows wines to soften faster.  It produces wines rich with tannins and textures that are sometimes considered to be a bit too “raw.”  French oak, on the other hand, produces wines containing more refined tannins, and with slightly sweeter fruit-like flavors.  Sometimes, however, wines from French oak can be a little too subtle.  Scents of peach and rose are often present in wine because of French oak, while stronger fragrances like vanilla are more common in wines from American oak because the wood contains up to four times the number of lactones.

What is very exciting is the growing trend of blending wines aged in both American and French oak.  Is there really such a noticeable difference from blending the two oaks?  Actually, there is, and wine produced from this dual incubation is curiously impressive because of what each oak offers.  The aging and combining of wine from both barrels is an attempt to literally capture the “best of both worlds.”  Has it been successful? According to numerous tasters, it certainly has!  If you’re curious, the next time you’re out and about, keep an eye open for wine aged in both French and American oaks.  Have a sip, and see if you can taste the unique result!  Cheers!

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