Why Winemakers Use French Oak Barrels
We’ve talked a lot of about the benefits of fermenting wine in oak barrels, especially in terms of Chardonnay, but now we want to get into the aspects of where the oak comes from. It may seem small but it’s these details that really matter to a master winemaker, and it can make or break a beautiful wine.
When it comes to barrels, French and American oaks are the most commonly used for creating fermentation barrels- there are others but they aren’t as popular. The difference comes down to the flavors they impart, just like anything else that’s used in wine production. It’s always about the flavor.
In regards to oak, this has to do with old vs. new. If you think about it, the oak is coming from an actual tree that has grown for a pretty long time, so it’s this timeframe that correlates directly to the flavors it may contain.
French oak tends to have smoother, more elegant flavors like dark chocolate and coffee which bodes well for many of the richer noble grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay. The most important part of this is that these aromas and flavors don’t overpower the grape but just compliment it.
In France, the oak for winemaking barrels comes from five specific forests, and when it’s ordered, many times the particular forest has to be specified. This fact makes French oak more desirable and less accessible and therefore more exclusive (and expensive). It can cost upwards of $1,000 for a new French oak barrel, so although a barrel can be used multiple times before it starts to take on too much of the previous grapes’ flavors, that price can be inhibitive for smaller wineries. However, you do really get what you pay for. Higher price, higher quality.
The origin of an oak barrel isn’t going to be something you can tell from the bottle label or even anywhere in the description- it’s just something a winery will choose for themselves. If you’re drinking a bottle that categorizes itself as a classic Pinot or Cab, chances are it’s made from French oak.