Tom's blog

American vs. French oak

One of the first cases of wine I bought in my early years of collecting was the 1978 Torres Gran Coronas Reserva, also known as the Torres “black label.” Traditionally the wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon but this year it was all cabernet. And, it was fermented and aged in American oak.

I remember the wine fondly but also for the influence of American oak on its character. Today, American oak is not so well revered.

French oak was popularized early in Napa Valley but World War II made it difficult to get French oak without the risk of being torpedoed, so American vintners used oak barrels made in this country — mostly Missouri. Georges de Latour, the iconic founder of Beaulieu Vineyards, however, introduced French oak to the reserve wine that still bears his name today. The French-born vintner changed a lot of minds.

I was recently reading a very interesting article Jordan Winery’s “Wine Country Table” magazine about its on-and-off relationship with American oak. Winemaker Rob Davis said 2012 was a turning point when he moved exclusively to French oak.

Davis said American oak adds more aggressive aromas — dill and coconut — to red wine, which was okay when the fruit was less intense. He said it masked the herbaceous character in the wine caused by grapes poorly sourced. Once Jordan changed location for its cabernet crop, the American oak was too overpowering. That is when they shifted to French oak.

He said as fruit intensity increased, he relied on French oak to merge the oak’s silky tannins with the grape’ ripe tannins. French oak adds finesse and brightness to the wine.

The influence of oak to a wine is vastly unknown to most consumers, yet it says a lot to what they like or dislike about a wine. It’s as true in white wine as in red, although I don’t know of anyone who dares to use American oak in their chardonnay — it’s just to aggressive.

The Jordan cabernet sauvignon is a wonderful wine to prove his point.