Wine 101 - Oak Part Two: There's Oak and then there's Oak.

And why it's not all the same


Oak has played a fundamental role in winemaking for centuries, first as a storage vessel, and more recently as a way to massage a wine's texture and flavor. These two effects of oak aging have only been well understood for the better part of a century, and the general principles that govern their use are surprisingly simple.

Tight Grain, Medium Grain, and Loose Grain Oak

There are three aspects of oak barrels and oak aging that are worth taking an in-depth look at. Today we will take a look at the different types of woods used to produce barrels for aging wine. The following emails will focus on both the seasoning and toasting of the wood used in the production of barrels, and their effect on the flavor and texture of wine.

Much of this discussion focuses on the difference between what is called French oak, the preferred types of oak around much of the world, and American oak. This is not to say that American Oak is a lesser oak, it simply impacts a wine differently. Wineries, very important ones at that, around the globe rely on the influence of American oak, so each email will also include a pair of specific recommendations to help you further your understanding of the nature of American Oak.

What to expect: American Oak

American Oak barrels have long been thought of as a cheaper, less worthy alternative to French oak when it comes to making barrels for aging wine. This is partially because the American Oak barrel industry was originally based on producing barrels for spirits, where finesse and delicacy took a back seat. As American coopers have adopted the refined techniques perfected over the course of centuries by their European counterparts, their barrels have begun to rival some of the worlds finest. The fact that they can cost half of what Imported French oak barrel costs has also been instrumental in the renaissance of these fine barrels.

How Oak works and why it is not all the same.

Oak barrels are porous. The loss of wine by evaporation, called the angel’s share, and the resulting introduction of oxygen into a barrel allows for complex chemical reactions to take place that can soften the tannins in a wine.  If a wine is stored in an new oak barrel, the wood tannins will leach out of the staves that make up the barrel, and will actually make the wine more tannic, however there comes a time when the oxidative effects of barrel aging soften tannins faster than they are absorbed by the wine.

In plainspeak that merely means that a wine ageing in a barrel can become more tannic as it absorbs wood tannins before softening due to the affects of oxygen. The type of oak can help determine when this point is reached, as one of the great variables among specific types of oak is the tightness of the grain, and thus the rate at which wine evaporates.

Oak is generally broken down into two Groups, American and French, though there are in fact many forests were wood is cut for the use in wine production.

American Oak (AKA Quercus Alba), is a rather wide grained oak with assertive flavors and relatively low porosity. It is high in lactones that can have a sweetening effect on wine. Typical classic descriptors for flavors imparted by American oak include: Coconut, Vanilla and Dill.

French Oak can be broken down into two different species
  • Quercus Robur – Also known as Limousin Oak – a looser grained French Oak
  • Quercus Sessiliflora-  AKA Nerver, Allier or Troncais – A tightly grained French Oak.
Both of these groups tend to impart a subtle spiciness to wines with notes of dried ginger, clove, cedar, and cigarbox being among the most common.

Slavonian – Generally used in the production of large botti, barrels that typically range from 1500 to 8000 liters used primarily in Italy’s Piedmont region. This oak has a tight grain with moderate tannins and limited aromatic compounds. Large Botte are typically used for decades and are prized for their neutral character and ability to slowly, and steadily allow the wine to breath.

Hungarian - Like most forests that fell behind the Iron Curtain, those of Hungary have suffered through several decades of mismanagement but are slowly emerging as an alternative to French Oak. The grain and structure of this type of wood is very similar to that of Nevers Oak but with a more aggressive flavor profile.

Portuguese– In the search for less expensive alternatives to French oak several winemakers have begun experimenting with the oaks of Forests all across Europe. The Portuguese oak produces rather aggressively oaky and spicy wines.

The flavors imparted by oak barrels depend not only on the type of oak used, but also on how the wood was seasoned and even on the specific steps taken to form and complete the barrel. We will take a look at those details in an upcoming email but for now it’s time to turn to a pair of American producers who have used the distinctive quality imparted by American oak barrels as a trademark, helping define their styles and setting them apart from the pack.

This is part three of a four part series.

Read Additional reports in this Series on Snooth.

Part One: Wine 101 - How to speak wine and "Really" taste wine

Part Three: Wine 101 - Oak Structure and Seasoning

Part Four: Wine 101 - Toasty Oak and why it's not all good Coming Soon

American Oak has Helped to Define the Style of many American Wineries

2005 Silver Oak Aleaxander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Classic aromas of light dill and oregano, enmeshed in slightly charry, marshmallow/vanilla oak greet the nose. In the mouth this is smooth and velvety with a sweet, easy character and good length to the somewhat simple toasty, black cherry fruit.

2006 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville

Huge, brambly, fruit tones on the nose with hints of dill, cocoa and creamy oak, are followed by a light layer of vanilla and spice over the blackberry, boysenberry fruit on the palate, all cut with a mineral vein and excellent top notes of spicy red berries, leather, and dried floral notes.

Jois us next time when we take a look at how proper seasoning of oak staves makes a difference, and can make or break a wine.

Mentioned in this article


  • Do the growers you recommend resort to the use of wood chips, or wood essence (I am told both are legal here)....?


    Oct 15, 2009 at 11:37 AM

  • If anyone ever gets a chance to visit Del Dotto winery in Napa, they make the same Cab with many differnt types of oak. It is a great lesson in the importance of oak.

    Oct 15, 2009 at 1:33 PM

  • curious if anyone knows of any great oakie chards? seems like more and more of the chardonnay are left in stainless rather than oak for the buttery appeal.

    Oct 15, 2009 at 2:28 PM

  • Is English Oak left out because it does not play a part in wine-making or is it "gulp" French Oak

    Oct 15, 2009 at 3:04 PM

  • Snooth User: mammer4
    98822 1

    We just drank a terrific Chardonnay with the distinct vanilla/buttery note from American Oak - some thought it almost had a butterscotch flavor
    The wine was 2006 Chardonnay from Passagno - Sleepy Hollow Vineyard - Santa Lucia Highlands

    Oct 15, 2009 at 6:08 PM

  • Snooth User: D9sus4
    163476 316

    GDP, Nice article you've started. You didn't mention the other American oak used in wine barrel making Quercus garryana, which I consider the best oak we have to offer. Check out the following link for more info:

    Oct 15, 2009 at 8:45 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,942

    Great idea to focus more on oak specifics, Greg. Would also be interesting if you could provide your views on a listing of specific California cabs (and other reds) and chardonnays (and other whites) that are affected differently by the oak used on them. France and Italy, too, I would think. Nothing like a (larger) number of specific examples... ;-)

    Oct 15, 2009 at 8:59 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
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    do any winery ever try other type of wood instead of Oak as barrels? Which part in USA provide the oak wood most?

    Oct 15, 2009 at 10:10 PM

  • Snooth User: D9sus4
    163476 316

    Cigarman, There were some wineries on the west coast using large Redwood barrels for wine, but those are rare these days. Missouri is the largest supplier of American oak barrels, but the better ones come from Oregon where they use a different type of oak than they grow in Missouri.

    Oct 15, 2009 at 10:49 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    Thanks for your reply. hv you taste those wines in using Redwood barrels? is it good?

    Oct 15, 2009 at 11:03 PM

  • Snooth User: phuzknuts
    236446 2

    Why don't u try a New Zealand chardonnay (Hawkes Bay - Gimbletts Gravells). Anything 2006 or earlier is good. Most are aged in french oak barrels

    Oct 16, 2009 at 3:29 AM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,942

    Cigarman, the redwood wines from California I've had (a couple of decades ago, or more) were pretty rough around the edges, with flavors I don't really want in my wine. I always viewed the wineries that did that as trying to get by on the cheap, which is no longer really necessary since wine is such big business (with concomitantly big prices) now. Chateauneuf du Pape and other southern Rhone wines were traditionally stored in chestnut barrles, and I had some wine I was aware was stored that way on several occasions more than two decades ago, but the region's pretty much changed this, as well as other practices, in their winemaking in recent years. And I think the ancient Mesopotamians, who supposedly started the wine trade, used palm, though it's very hard to imagine how the coopers were able to work that wood. Though the ancient Greeks generally used amphorae for storage, they added pine resin (retsina) as a preservative/flavoring agent. Don't know if they every used pine barrels.

    A google search will likely pull up several more variations. As a start, here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:

    "Throughout history other wood types, including chestnut, pine, redwood, and acacia, have been used in crafting winemaking vessels, particular large fermentation vats. However none of these wood types possess the compatibility with wine that oak has demonstrated in combining its water tight, yet slightly porous, storage capabilities with the unique flavor and texture characteristic that it can impart to the wine that it is in contact with. Chestnut is very high in tannins and is too porous as a storage barrel and must be coated with paraffin to prevent excessive wine loss through evaporation. Redwood is too rigid to bend into the smaller barrel shapes and imparts an unpleasant flavor. Acacia imparts a yellow tint to the wine. Other hardwoods like apple and cherry wood have an off putting smell. Austrian winemakers have a history of using Acacia barrels... In Chile there are traditions for using barrel made of rauli wood but it is beginning to fall out of favor due to the musky scent it imparts on wine."

    Oct 16, 2009 at 3:56 AM

  • Snooth User: penguinoid
    Hand of Snooth
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    English Oak is also /Quercus robur/, same as Limousin Oak. I guess it's not mentioned as English Oak as I don't think there's any tradition of using oak from English forests for wine barrels. I wonder if any of the English wineries are using English Oak barrels?

    Also, just to be picky -- when writing species names, only the genus (Quercus in this case) should have a capital, the species part of the name (e.g., 'robur') shouldn't have one -- e.g. /Quercus robur/ not /Quercus Robur/. Ideally the name should also be in italics... (I've put the name in sort-of pretend italics).

    Oct 16, 2009 at 5:33 AM

  • Snooth User: GregT
    Hand of Snooth
    89564 2,600

    Camarone - great oaky chardonnays would probably be most white Burgundies. Had Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches the other day - it's aged in oak, as are most others. That is in fact why the CA producers started with the oak on chardonnay.

    Some from the Macon region are not oak aged, but they're different in many of the things they do.

    As dmucker says, other barrel materials include chestnut and fruit woods - apple, pear, etc. But it takes a long time to grow a tree and the oaks get much bigger than apple trees given the same time. The palm wasn't made into barrels the way we know of them today. It was just hollowed out.

    Incidentally, the idea isn't only oak - it's when the wine goes into the oak and what type of treatment the barrels have seen. In other words, wine fermented in oak will be different from wine aged in oak. The Burgundians really burn the insides of their barrels and they are slightly larger than those used in say, Bordeaux. So if you use a barrel that's smaller and fresh wood, you'll get a lot of wood flavors like dill, spice, etc. If you really char the wood to black, you get butterscotch, vanilla, and those nice sweet flavors.

    Oct 16, 2009 at 6:08 PM

  • Snooth User: penguinoid
    Hand of Snooth
    148296 1,216

    Yes, if you want a good oaked chardonnay, a good white Burgundy is a good bet. I'd also second the recommendation of the Craggy Range Gimblett Gravel Chardonnay (Gimblett Gravels, NZ) -- I tried the 2006 a little while ago, and it was very nice.

    Oct 16, 2009 at 8:34 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
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    Wow, so much to go through!

    I've got two follow pieces in the works, one specifically oh the structural differences between oaks and how the seasoning process effects the final product, and a second on toasting and how that changes the chemical nature of the wood that is exposed to the wine. Look for them next week.

    i will return shortly to follow up on questions here though.

    Oct 16, 2009 at 8:51 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    Expecting it and the oaking process will let us know better the tasting come out from the wines.

    Oct 20, 2009 at 3:26 AM

  • Snooth User: cleere
    97952 57

    I find these articles very informative, thank you. Mostly things I have already learned, but still good review and information I can share with my staff.

    Oct 20, 2009 at 10:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,749

    Thanks very much!

    I appreciate it.

    Oct 22, 2009 at 6:49 PM

  • Snooth User: ksregan
    189341 7

    If I would like to do a wine tasting of wine from the different barrels, how will I know what kind of oak barrel was used? I can assume a California wine is using American oak and a French wine is using French oak - but I would like to do a wine tasting of Chardonnay from all the different types of barrels (plus an un-oaked version) - how would I identify them? Thanks.

    Oct 23, 2009 at 6:20 PM

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