A ‘barrel’ of laughs: Part one

When it comes to wine, I’ve noticed something that divides a lot of people: oak.

Some people absolutely love a wine that’s been aged in oak barrels, while others really hate it. Oak can really influence the taste profiles of wine and there are different types of oak that are used because they have certain taste characteristics.

Barrels and barrel ageing may seem like a bit of a boring topic but, to be honest, I find it fascinating and whenever I give tours of the winery, talking about barrels is my favourite part. With this in mind, I thought it would be good to give a brief guide to the two most popular style of oak barrels, French and American.

*If you are French or from the USA you may find this next part a bit offensive…*

As mentioned, different types of oak have different taste characteristics and this is down to a number of reasons; from the way that the tree has grown, to the amount of ‘toasting’ it has had (I’ll get to that later). Basically, the easiest way to describe the qualities of these oak barrels is actually to play on the stereotypes of the countries that they come from…

I see French oak in the same way that the world may stereotypically characterise a French person. Subtly arrogant. If you recall to a previous article I wrote about French wine (click here to read it), I have a friend called Victor, who hails from Paris.

Victor is one of my closest friends but he is an arrogant fucker. He is a stereotypical French man. He’s the type of person that, if you told him that his hair looked nice, would turn to you and say “Yes I know”. So arrogant.

However, through knowing Victor and actually living in France for a period of time; this is a characteristic I have grown to love and find endearing. Victor knows his hair looks good and doesn’t need telling (how arrogant) but he doesn’t parade it around, he doesn’t open the door and enter the room saying “James! Look at my ‘air, it’s so nice, oui?!” (It’s best to read this bit in a French accent). There’s a subtlety to this arrogance and I see French oak as a ‘subtly arrogant’ style of wood.

French oak is denser than its American counterpart and is a tight grain of wood which means it emits more subtle aromas. Typical aromas from French oak tend to be delicate hints of vanilla, coffee and sometimes coconut. Because of the short grain and the subtlety of the aromas French oak brings, it is better suited to lighter wines like Pinot Noir. At the winery where I’m currently working, we use French oak to age our medium bodied red wine made from Triomphe d’Alsace grape – a beautiful and smooth red wine with lovely dark fruit aromas. There is a hint of vanilla in this from the French oak and it’s just very subtle, which really compliments the wine.

American oak. Well… I guess I see American oak in the same way the rest of the world sees a person from the USA or, in particular, one person from the USA who likes to tweet a lot. What I mean by this is that the stereotypical American is seen as being big and brash. There’s no subtlety to their arrogance and they wouldn’t wait for you to tell them that their hair looked nice, they would burst through the door saying something like “Look at my hair, it’s frickin’ awesome!” (I wrote that bit as someone from ‘The Hills’).

So American oak isn’t as dense as French oak, it has a wider grain that imparts more lactones and oxygen than its European cousin. To put it simply, this means that the aromas are more pronounced and aggressive. American oak has these rich vanilla aromas, big tannic/coffee characteristics and I personally pick up a bit of a spicy black pepper note from some wines that have been aged in American oak.

Wines that are aged in American oak tend to be made from the richer, fuller bodied/thicker skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel/Primitivo. At Luckett Vineyards, we use American oak for the ageing process of our ‘Black Cab’, the most full bodied red that we produce. This is because we want to instil the wines with rich flavours to enhance the body of it. If we used French oak for these wines, I believe the final product would have fallen flat because the strength of the wine would have overpowered the aromas of the oak.

So this is the end of part one. I bet you can’t wait for the second instalment!

– James

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