The difference between French and American oak has less to do with the geographic origin of the wood, than with the wood species with which each is associated.
Even an amateur will notice the obvious difference in flavour and taste. American oak is often described as aggressive, dusty or one-dimensional, but even so it makes a unique contribution to well-known international wines. Winemakers often prefer to use a combination of French and American oak seeing that these two can be complementary. Due to the lower price of American oak, it is obvious why financial managers are partial to it.
During the 1990s many American wine cellars used American oak to ferment and mature white wines, and to mature red wines. Thereafter many cellars switched to alternative wood products in view of cost considerations. Nevertheless many cellars were still convinced of the uniqueness of American oak and capitalised on it. It occupies a specific niche area in the wood maturation of wines and is used for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay in particular.
As a result of its unique characteristics, it adds a specific dimension to wines. Cellars that do not simply want to be copy cats are given an alternative option by using American oak. It may impart a wide range of flavour profiles to wine, including the following:
- Tropical flavours
- Butter caramel
In order to ensure optimal utilisation of the above-mentioned complementary characteristics, the cellars demand that American oak comply with the following specifications:
The percentage new barrel usage may vary from 30 to 60%. An air drying period of 24 to 36 months for the wood once it has been cut. Barrel toasting should always be medium plus to heavy. It should preferably be used in conjunction with French oak, as the American oak provides the outspoken flavours, while the French oak imparts more complexity.
The treatment of new barrels should not assume drastic proportions; it is recommended that a rinse with warm water upon receipt be followed by a simple cold water sealing action (Work, 2006).
Ever since 1971 Ridge Vineyards has been convinced of the special role played by American oak in their wines. The most important motivation was that they did not believe in making French style wines only; they wanted to develop a unique character instead. At that stage properly coopered American oak barrels were not readily available and they had to rely on the coopers of Bourbon whiskey barrels, who had matured American oak staves on hand. This also resulted in Ridge Vineyards insisting that all wood for their barrels be matured for at least 2 years. In addition to this requirement the cellar also evaluates different barrels and suppliers annually before making up different blends (Anonymous, 2006).
In South Africa American oak barrels cost between R2 500 and R3 000 (excluding VAT) less for 225 and 300 litre barrels and these are used especially for wines requiring a more aggressive wood character. American oak usually imparts a wide variety of flavours such as coconut, vanilla, chocolate and spice to the wine. As a result of the prominent wood character with the accompanying flavours mentioned above, it is often used in conjunction with French oak barrels. If the particular flavours are intended to merely complement French oak barrels, different forms of alternative American oak products may be used in conjunction with the former. However, due to its aggressive flavours, complementary use thereof should be carefully managed.
Anoniem. 2006. History of American Oak at Ridge Vineyards. Practical Winemaking November/December 2006: 28.
Work, H. 2006. American Oak Barrels. Find Their Niche. Practical Winemaking November/December 2006: 20 – 27.