Wine Flavor Profiles - French Oak vs. American Oak

A look at the difference that French vs American oak contribute to your favorite wine....

French Oak versus American Oak is one of those great debates in most wine circles. 

Is there a difference in the flavor profiles that contributes to the wine as it is aged in the different oak barrels?  Can a tasters or skilled tasters really tell a difference between the two on the nose and taste on the palate? 

For this discussion I really want you to think of “Oak” like a seasoning that adds to the wine’s aromatics of the bouquet and flavoring on the palate as well as support and body to the wine; like spices are used in cooking.

To understand this relationship better let’s first look how  and when oak is introduced to wine in what forms and at what point of the wine making process.  According to Wikipedia:  “… Oak can have a profound effect on the resulting wine, affecting the color, flavor, tannin profile and texture of the wine. Oak can come into contact with wine in the form of a barrel during the fermentation or aging periods, and can also be introduced to the wine in the form of free-floating oak chips or as wood staves (or sticks) added to wine in a fermentation vessel like stainless steel.”

When we use descriptors to describe the aromatics (Nose) like spice rack, with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and “allspice” it is a pretty safe bet that Oak have been used in making the wine.  For the palate oak influences will get descriptors like rich flavors of caramel, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, smoke, tea, mocha, toffee and butter.  Some authorities  say that American Oak has a greater influence on a wine’s nose and palate, reflecting vanilla notes on the nose and a slightly taste of sweetness; while French Oak tends to have less impact on the wine’s aromatics and palate, but adds a complexity that one does not seem to get from American Oak. 

Depending upon the descriptor being used to describe the nose or the palate can also give the taster information as to when the oak has been introduced in the wine making process.  Tasters rely on these clues to assess if it was new or neutral oak, oak chips or staves that have been utilized, yes It these clues that can lead the taster to the type of oak, and that may even lead them to the wine’s specific country of origin, region and maybe even the producer.  In some cases the oak treatment can be the wine maker’s signature.

So as we develop our palates what should we be looking for as descriptors that will help us identify the difference between French vs. American Oak, Is there a difference?   According to “Rethinking American vs. French Oak” by Jordan P. Ross: “Both American and French oak contribute tannin and aroma, French oak contains more tannins and flavor components and has a less obviously “oaky” flavor and smell than American oak.   American oak has a more aggressive mouthfeel and immediately apparent aroma.   American oak contains more vanillin (vanilla aroma) and more odorous compounds.”

Wikipedia, reports “American oak contributes much more modest tannin, giving wine abundant tannins and good texture; it allows the fruit to interact harmoniously with the wood, resulting in complexity in the aromas, nose and soft, palatable tannins.”  French oak, results in silky and transparent tannins, with hint of sweetness integrated with the fruity flavors on the palate.  Spices and toasted almond are noteworthy, combined with flavors of ripe red fruit in red wines, and notes of peach, exotic fruits and floral aromas like jasmine and rose in whites, depending on the grape variety employed.”

So you may be asking yourself where I personally weigh in on the debate……

Having worked very hard of the past 15 plus years training and developing my tasting skills and palate tell me that there is a difference in the wine depending whether French or American oak was use.  For me it was wines where it was new French or new American oak used that I first learned how to access the differences between the two.   Mastering that distinction I moved on training my sense of smell and palate to discern the subtle difference between partial used / neutral French and American oak….    

Please share your thought on French Oak vs. American Oak.  Keep in mind when it comes to my tasting skills I have my good days and bad day.


Gregory Hayes, cs, cwp

Sommelier / Wine Buyer

Mecenat Bistro & Gathering Place

821 W Burlington Ave.  Western Springs, IL. 60558


Our Wine Tasting Hours have expanded include Friday's 2 - 4 pm. Saturday's 1 - 4 pm..... Tasting are complimentary, so join me here at Mecenat Bistro & Gathering as we taste 5 wines..... Now on Fridays and Saturdays

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