What's the difference between American oak barrels and French oak barrels?

We planted a grapevine garden in front of the winery this spring. One day, this vineyard garden will showcase all the different types of grape vines that can be found in this part of France. People will be able to tell the difference between Syrah and Grenache and Merlot and Cabernet by seeing the vines right beside each other.

But for now, the vines are tiny and all pretty much look the same. So this year, we’ve been using them to show visitors and tourists how grape vines look when they’re first planted.

It’s an interesting process since we rarely plant from seed anymore. Instead we use bench grafts that connect the variety we want to grow to a rootstock suited for that soil and rainfall.

When young, the graft is sealed in wax.  We show everybody this waxy bit and get to use the young vines to illustrate the notion of grafting and rootstock. This can naturally lead into conversations about how deep roots go, why virtually all French vines are planted on American rootstock, and so on.

Photos of young grape vines

Click on any of the photos below for a larger view:

As you probably know, the O’Podium gift box features one wine aged three different ways.  It’s a unique way to learn the difference between different aging processes because the wine is exactly the same except for the three aging processes:

  1. Unoaked
  2. 8 months in new American oak
  3. 12 months in new French oak

The difference between unoaked wines and oaked wines are pretty well-known.  Oak affects the flavor and complexity of the wine, adding aromatic qualities like toast, vanilla, etc. while also imparting certain structural changes that can add to the aging potential of the wine.

o'vineyards o'podium wine gift boxThe difference between American oak and French oak is less well-known.  Wine nerds will talk about it frequently, but it’s a rare opportunity to smell and taste the difference for yourself.

American oak is much denser than French oak.  The difference in grain means that American oak can be sawed while French oak is traditionally axed.  Axes follow the grain of the wood, but saws cut against the grain and open up the wood to create a larger surface area that is a lot more porous.  The American oak has an immediate and somewhat superficial effect on the wine.  French oak is a little tighter, adding a subtler flavor and giving more of the nuanced structural qualities for aging.

Anyway, Juliet Bruce Jones, Master of Wine, just did a great write up of how the O’Podium 2005 wines are tasting and compares the three wines in her conclusion:

The wine aged in oak did have more complexity and richness than the unoaked version which was nice but quite simple. The American oak wine was more approachable now, despite the grippy tannins, as the fruit was more forward and appealing. Needs robust food. The French oak gave fine structure but the fruit is still shy. Worth trying in a year or two to see if the fruit has emerged from its hidey-hole.

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards is just a few kilometres north of Carcassonne. GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Domaine O’Vineyards
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou until the D118 (the last straight road) and the Dyneff gas station on the roundabout.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which goes up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire.
  4. At the last juction, bear left at the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.