Oak: Why Americans Still (Kinda) Like The French.

Good morning! We here at MSix Wines hope you had a wonderful weekend.

A great article on “oak” came out late last week, regarding the influence of oak on a consumer’s preference and the different avenues of achieving the desired taste components. In the article, Balik discusses the feasibility of the use of oak from a cost standpoint, as well as the basic difference between French and American oak. Today, I am going to expand that discussion a bit further, touching on the chemical differences along the way. In addition to the traditional approach to oak-use, we will also discussing the practical use of more cost-effective ways to impart the oak flavors on a wine that may be at a price point which doesn’t support the cost associated with oak barrels.

I feel confident stating that if American winemakers had a choice between French and American oak barrels, cost aside, 95% of the winemakers would select a French oak barrel; some of this may be empirical but most of these selections are based on the improved taste components that French oak vs. American imparts on the wine. As a whole, French oak possess a tighter grain pattern than that of its American counterpart. This difference in grain tightness correlates to the amount of respiration allowed by the oak. With a lower rate of respiration, French oak imparts a softer, much more subtle flavor profile on the wine. A subtle, more delicate flavor profile is far superior in the overall complexity of a wine than the bold, slightly overwhelming profile delivered by American oak. You never want any component of a wine to overpower the rest of the wine. Layers. Complexity. Complimentary not overwhelming.

Now, the nerdy-ness of me comes out. Post-“oak” wine is often thought to have a vanilla-like sweetness in addition to a toasty, smokiness. Vanillin (the compound responsible for family of flavors associated “vanilla”) is a result of the breakdown of lignin, a cell wall component that adds to the structure and rigidity of oak. The toasting of oak, performed by placing the barrels over kiln, results in a accelerated breakdown of the lignin in the oak, further enhancing the vanillin compounds in the barrel. This double effect of toasting depicts the importance of the selection of toast level for wine barrels, as too much or too little toast can create a undesirable wine. A winemaker has a wide array of possibility when it comes to toast levels, allowing even more control in crafting a wine.

While toast and grain tightness are very important, the biggest discrepancy between French and American come from the species level. Both French and American oak come from the Quercus genus of the plant kingdom. French oak is from the Quercus petrae species of oak, which is thought to be a much more fragile species, containing the mouthfeel component in wine, compare to that of Quercus alba of American oak. The higher fragility and high tannin concentration of the French oak creates a fuller, more delicate taste and aroma profile – a favorable position when making a premium wine. But this favorable position is costly and the cost difference between French and American oak is not to be ignored. For mid-sized, premium wine producers, the budget for new oak can be in the millions of dollars each year! A rough comparison of the price difference between French and American oak has shown that French barrels are approximately twice the cost of American oak barrels. Whether French oak imparts twice the desired flavors and aromas onto the wine is the eternal winemakers must ask themselves – or try to convince winery owners! More often than not, a winery will mix French and American oak barrels in a single wine, creating a balance both in the wine styles and cost-effectiveness between the two.

There are other alternatives to oaks barrels used in the wine industry. Oak staves, oak chips, and oak dust are the most common alternatives. Oak dust is often added during fermentation, allowing the integration of the flavor compounds creating a “finished product” effect, sooner while oak staves and oak chips are often added post-fermentation, creating a more traditional approach to using oak alternative, allowing the oak to age with the wine over an extended period of wine. While all forms of oak alternatives may impart some of the desired flavors a winemaker wants, none permit the respiration effects of a wine barrel itself. There are processes that can take place to supplant the need for barrel respiration, but there comes a time where one must decide whether the money saved on not purchasing oak barrels and “creating” a wine as opposed to “crafting” it, justifies an apparent sacrifice of wine quality. Again, this is a winery philosophy and questions must be asked and answer by people high up the food chain.

We at MSix Wines use 100% French oak barrels. It is the philosophy of our company that the use of French oak barrels complements our winemaking style as well as the wines themselves. Our quest is make the very best wine possible while keeping it affordable for all to enjoy.

I hope my nerdy-ness was manageable today! Just a quick apology to everyone who has subscribe to our blog for the “blowing up” of your mailboxes last week. I will do my best to limit the blog updates during the day! We appreciate your support!

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-M. Iaconis

All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else.