American vs French oak - whats the nose diff?

Recently I had a WH Smith pinot that showed an incredible amount of oak on the nose. So much that it was almost unbearable and only 4 hours + in the decanter helped it out.

Last night I had the 05 Ridge Chard (the one that somehow was #2 in the WS top 100) and the nose on this was exactly the same as the pinot. Nothing but oak and I mean nothing. Side by side, blind, you would not be able to tell the pinot apart from the chardonnay as they were both just showing oak oak oak oak oak and nothing else on the nose.

so - reading the back label of the Ridge Chard, they say that it was aged in air-dried American oak. I don’t know what type of oak WH Smith used but it got me wondering, is that crazy over the top nothing but oak nose a result of American oak?

ok - so WH Smith uses French oak.

Is this perhaps a flaw in the wine?

In the case of the WH Smith, I left the wine out on the counter and the next day that smell was totally gone, leaving a great wine in its place.

I think it’s more likely due to the age of the oak. We use 30%+ American oak in our inventory, and some of our selections are in 100% American, but as a rule Dan uses neutral oak on many of our lots. I don’t think anyone could describe our overall style as oaky.

I know some people describe American oak as having a “dill” character, but my personal feeling on that is that it probably comes from cheap, inadequately dried American oak. We get a nice vanilla bean character from most of our American cooperage.

By the way, interesting questions, Rob. Keep them coming!

Mary’s spot on as usual.

The more I’ve learned about oak and buying barrels, the more I realize I know very little.

The interactions between the conditions in which the tree is grown, how long it is seasoned and where it is seasoned after being milled, how individual staves are selected for a barrel, bending, then toasting (much like ordering a steak - Medium to one cooperage or even one individual guy running the pot is much different than others, then add capping the pot or not, etc), and thin vs thick staves, etc, are incredibly complex.

In general, a wine that is “over-oaked” might have too many newer barrels in it, or it might have less new but inferior (seasoning is a great example) new barrels in it.

It is true that some American oak can have distinct dill/green flavors, but the potential for vanilla in properly-seasoned and toasted Am oak barrels is much higher than in French oak (the potential for generating vanillin hits a peak between 19 and 28 months of seasoning in both, though, I believe). So it could go either way…and “American” oak is pretty broad. There are a lot of places in America that barrels come from and all are distinct in grain based on the conditions in which the tree is grown (Minnesota vs Appalachia, for example).

When blind tasting I always look for the dill/coconut character that you find with American oak vs. the more subtle baking spice, anise, clove from French oak. Regarding vanilla, Amer. oak is usually a stronger vanilla extract while French is a vanilla bean note.

Of course, as mentioned, these are very much in flux as more American oak is coming from cooler forests, is split rather than sawed and is air dried and not kiln dried. Many famous cooperages make barrels from both types of wood so house style is harder to peg too. Also, many places known for using American oak (Spain, Australia) are moving more towards French oak. It’s not as easy as it used to be to tell the two apart. I’ve seen Ridge wines, all American oak, pass for Burgundy among Master Somms.

After two full days of the last glass or so left in the open bottle in the fridge, the overwhelming oak on the nose is starting to subside. It’s still there but at least now you can smell a little bit more then oak and probably ID this as a white wine.

I am convinced that when the oak shows this way that it must be some sort of a flaw. Is it?

Ridge chardonnays tend to really show oak in their youth, especially considering the level of oak actually used. According to their web site, they use 21% new, 24% one year, 10% two year. I remember talking with Ken Zinns at a recent event (Pinot Paradise) about the tendency of Santa Cruz Mountains wines to show the oak more than wines from most other regions. I think it’s partly because they tend not to have big forward fruit. I don’t have enough experience with Ridge chardonnays to know how well they age. The Mount Eden Estate chards age beautifully, and I think they use even more new oak than Ridge (although French and less time in barrel).


When I was in school we learned that American oak was higher in whiskey lactones and this tended to cause more of the coconut flavor you might find in American oak, and that French barrels were more in the vanilla realm. Well, my opinion now is, it depends. Depends on the cooper, toast levels, forest, etc. We have been getting the Vicard American oak, M+ toasted head bbls for some of our Zins, and I would swear they were French- very clove/pie spice. Really, none of the American oak we get gives what I would consider a coconut flavor. [dontknow.gif]

That would be an interesting experience since Ridge doesn’t make pinot noir and I can’t even begin to imagine chardonnay fermented in a new American oak barrel, nor do I want to.

I’m thinking he meant Bordeaux…

you grow oak trees in your yard Todd??


One hopes. I’d hate to think an “expert” confused Montebello with La Tache. Of course, I believe it was the late Harry Waugh who, when asked if he’d ever confused Bordeaux and Burgundy said, “Not since lunch.”

Actually, it was the '01 Santa Cruz Chardonnay that fooled 3 MSs into calling it Meursault. We all tasted it in a blind tasting group and were amazed by how good it was. I can see how Montebello would fit in nicely with some very good Bordeaux.

This is what I think of. I usually notice the vanilla more on French oak versus American.

Thanks, Nate!
A couple more personal observations on the incredibly complex topic of oak …

From some French-oaked wines I get a distinctive cedar aroma and flavor that I don’t really like … does anyone else get this? Perhaps from low toast levels?

Also, although I am unsure of the source (perhaps Mel Knox?) I was told once that for many decades and as recently as the 1950’s, French oak actually came from Bulgarian forests because the French forests had been decimated due to neglect, damage and mismanagement during the Prussian War and both World Wars.

And as Nate and Linda have pointed out, the quality of cooperage makes a huge difference, whether the oak is American or French. Much of the early American production was kiln dried because the industry was trying to break into a previously locked market with lower prices and readily available product. Once the industry acquired a solid clientele it was relieved of inventory pressure and began to focus on quality, including the longer term air-drying required for top level cooperage.

I’ve had a lot of SCM Chardonnay, including Mt Eden (which is awesome BTW). I also looked at my note for the 04 Ridge SCM Chardonnay and while I did note the oak and buttery style, it certainly wasn’t anything like this 05, and both had the same amount of bottle age on them. I just think I got a bad one. Like I said - I recently had a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir which had the exact same problem and in the case of that bottle, I had many others to compare it to which were all much different.

I think that, clearly, cooperage matters. I think forest matters a lot less than others think, but grain tightness does matter. But as was pointed out, I think that drying time is really a key to the perception of oak in the resultant wine. The more time the staves are exposed to the elements, the less overt oak flavors seem to be present in the final wine. Short stave ageing leads to very pronounced, almost raw wood flavor in wine.

For whatever reason some wines pick up oak whereas others don’t. I went on a trip to burgundy and tasted pinot with a barrel that was super “oaky” in our california Pinot in the burgundy pinot you could not pick up the oak (same cooper, toasting) and it was ver well integrated.