What type of Oak, how to determine taste and smell

I would really like to hear some good tips to determine what type of oak is used and how to detect when blind tasting? Are there some basic rules? Do these basic rules apply to both red and white? I am sure there is complexity here like with all tasting/smelling components but what are the basic traits to look for! Examples would be much appreciated!

American Oak tends to have a slightly sweeter feel, more coconut and dill flavors (although I rarely detect the dill part). As AO ages over 36 months before they go to cooperage, those notes tend to get toned down, but there will always be those sweeter lactones and a hint of coconut. AO, due to being denser, also imparts a lot of barrel flavor early and strongly. You have to be a bit careful as it can easily take over a wine. That said, it integrates much quicker than french oak, which tends to take longer.

French oak is a little more tannic, tends to develop vanilla notes and is generally less sweet. It’s not uncommon to taste a young wine in a French oak barrel and think it’s like sucking on a 2x4" treated wood beam, but then like magic a year later it’s all very elegant and integrated.

Good examples of higher end wines that use American Oak are Rioja wines, Ridge Vineyards and Silver Oak, but to be honest, most wines in that bracket tend to use French oak as it’s considered a bit more “prestigious”.

I personally tend to work with a bit more American Oak in my winemaking for a few reasons:

  1. One is purely an environmental one - it doesn’t make sense to ship oak from Europe, when there are perfectly fine American Oak specimens grown right here.

  2. I use very little oak and with American Oak I can use less of it and still achieve elegance.

  3. It’s quicker to get an integrated barrel feel with AO, a rounder feel. With French Oak it can take much longer, sometimes too long for a small winery.

  4. It’s half the price of a French Oak barrel.

  5. In a famous 30’s blind tasting, French Oak came last and American Oak came second in flavor profile.

How to chose which oak to use? That’s a hard one. But in general, zippier or even austere wines tend to do well with American Oak. Also, oxidative and “tannic” wines tend to do well with AO. The inherent sweetness of them tends to temper that harshness of the tannins etc. French Oak seems to work really well with fruit forward, or sweeter wines as the French Oak’s more tannic nature tends to counter that.

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Adam covers it pretty well. The ‘rarely detect dill’ part is so interesting.

I’ve frequently heard dill described as a note common to American oak, but had never detected it. Have definitely gotten coconut. About two weeks ago for the first time had a wine that was clearly giving off that dill note.

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I don’t notice dill too much with younger Rioja, I get more coconut. But I had a 20 year old Rioja a few years back that smelled like the inside of a pickle jar. It was really striking just how much dill character came through.

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In short:

Bourbon = American oak
Cognac = French oak

However, these apply to only wines that have an obvious Bourbon or Cognac character from rather heavily toasted barrels. Those are easy cases, but most wines unfortunately (well, fortunately) aren’t that obvious.

Both types of oak can impart a vanilla character, but often American oak lends a more sweeter, pure vanillin note along with rich coconut overtones, while French oak has a drier and spicier vanilla quality to it.

American oak that hasn’t been dried long enough can impart a green, somewhat dill-like herbal note to it - but this is, in turn, different from the Rioja dill. Normally a young Rioja wine doesn’t have that obvious dill character, but a Rioja wine that has been aged long enough in American oak can have a striking, less green but very obvious dill note to its nose. Aged wines of La Rioja Alta are very susceptible to developing dill notes over the years.

Less toasted French oak tends to have spicier and woodier notes that are less sweet than those of American oak. If aged long enough, these woody notes can get rather bitter and aggressive.

Butter isn’t a characteristic of any oak, but instead diacetyl that can develop over MLF or even fermentation with certain yeast strains. Since MLF is usually done for white wines aged in oak, people often assume buttery qualities come from oak.

Creaminess is more difficult thing. Oak aging tends to give some creamy qualities, but so do MLF and aging on the lees. I’ve had wines that I’ve described as “creamy” that have been fermented in oak but haven’t gone through MLF or aged for particularly long on the lees - and wines that haven’t seen any oak or gone through MLF but aged for very long times on the lees. What I’ve learned from “creamy” qualities is that they are deceptive and it’s hard to make anything more than educated guesses out of them.

Finally, a point already touched by Adam: historically French oak was considered the lowest in quality in Europe, due to its rather open-knit texture and rather powerful - even overwhelming - characteristics. Oak from Slavonia, Hungary, Baltics and even Germany was favored over French oak because barrels made with wood from these parts made barrels that left noticeably smaller imprint on the wine. Only when the French managed to turn their huge oak forests into a “thing”, people began to associate obvious oak tones with desirable qualities and suddenly French oak was a Big Thing.

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For example this is a great article on the subject:

https://daily.sevenfifty.com/the-evolution-of-american-oak/

There also this quote on the quality of French oak:

An interesting side note is that Hungarian and Baltic oak were historically regarded as being the highest in quality, especially by the Bordelais. When the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s interrupted trade with the north, Bordeaux was forced to turn to French oak. In a famous letter of 1811, the then-director of Château Latour complained that Baltic oak was increasingly difficult to acquire, bemoaning, “We shall soon have to…make do with what is here, even though the English don’t like it.” Once the wars ended, Bordeaux returned, at least in part, to the use of Baltic and Eastern European oak. It would take the advent of WWI to fully commit the Bordelais to relying on their own barrels.

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Slavonian oak is known to impart a lot of butterscotch/caramel notes, so if you’re in need of that, that might be the way to go.

To add to Otto’s point: A custom crush facility I know that almost exclusively used French oak had one customer that wanted to use a few Hungarian oak barrels. After a year everyone was blown away by the Hungarian barrels and now they’re considering shifting over completely…

I also find the incidence of dill with American oak to be interesting. It seems to vary not only by wine or vintage but bottle to bottle. For instance, I purchased just over a case of 2010 LdH Cubillo. Most bottles have been excellent. One bottle in particular displayed an extremely strong dill note which just eclipsed everything else. We opened it before dinner so I don’t think food pairing cause it to show in a particular way, and it did not decrease over the course of the evening. Or maybe it was just something that once noticed could not be ignored. I have not noticed any dill in subsequent bottles. This corresponds with my experiences with other Rioja, that dill notes can be seen in one bottle and not in another.

One more odd thing about dill though is that I’ve noticed it, albeit very rarely, in wines which I don’t believe use any American oak.

Michael, exactly! I’d actually had 3 bottles of this wine previously, same vintage, across 3 years and not detected dill. This one, BOOM. Dill.

I often detect dill, and a sense of ‘sawdust’, in American oak barrels, especially when barrel tasting different lots of wines that are in different coopers. The vanilla and coconut elements are pretty strong to me, which is why I do not use American Oak. As Adam mentioned above, American oak has much tighter grains, which allows it to hold on to it’s aromatic and flavor elements much longer than French oak. Therefore, a 5 year old American oak barrel will still leave a ‘noticeable mark’ on the wine’ to me, whereas a similarly aged French oak barrel will not.

Cheers.

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Berserkers’ own Mel Knox – dean of American barrel brokers – has a good primer on oaks and barrels on his website:
http://www.knoxbarrels.com/FAQ.html

If you want to smell and taste essence of American oak, try a Vina Ardanza Rioja (~$30).

It’s not just the species and source of the wood. Aging and the level of char/toast have a big impact.

That sounds pretty weird, since Slavonian oak and Hungarian oak are virtually the same thing. Slavonia is next to Hungary and it actually used to be a part of Hungary in the past. Same climate, same species of trees.

Furthermore, to my understanding, French oak is more known for the spicy, caramel and butterscotch notes, Slavonian and Hungarian oak known more for their dry, woody and fruity notes. And caramel / butterscotch requires some degree of toast, so a lighter toast should yield less less to no caramel / butterscotch notes, no matter where the wood comes from or which species of oak it is.

And of course all the botti in Piedmont were made out of Slavonian oak and reused for decades (other than the much rarer chestnut botti) and continue to be the primary wood of choice. Only recently have some producers started getting botti (not barrique) made out of french oak. I believe that is because of how French oak transfers oxygen giving Nebbiolo softer tannins (a “modern” approach). I may be mistaken on this motive.

Yes, that is true. French oak is less dense, so it permits more oxygen through it, which, in turn, increase the rate at which oxygen dissolves into wine. And since oxygen is important in polymerizing (“softening”) tannins, the bottis made from French oak tend to produce wines with more resolved tannins.

At least up to the point when the solids from wine have clogged the oak pores - from this point onward it doesn’t matter whether the botti is made from French, American, Slavonian or Hungarian oak, since it is all but an inert vessel for aging wine.

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So this would be why some producers scrape the insides of older barrels to give then a “second” life?

Really good thread here.

One thing I really prize in premium wines is perceiving tingly kitchen spices late in the taste. I love white pepper notes in good white wines, autumn, Christmas and/or baking type spices in pinots and other reds, black pepper in syrah and zinfandel (as long as it’s not too pronounced or dominant), and various other such kitchen spice notes.

Can one determine which of these derive from oak barrels? I’ve tended to assume all or most of them originate from barrels, but I don’t really know. Does anyone?

At least rotundone (a terpene compound that comes from grapes) is responsible for the peppery notes in Syrah and Grüner Veltliner, among some other varieties.

Some Pinot Noir clones are also naturally peppery, but I don’t know which conpound is rensponsible here - at least not rotundone, because the characteristic is very different from Syrah.

I was going to say, even very traditional Northern Rhones, aged in neutral wood, can have marked pepper notes.

I’ve always assumed that the intense cinnamon and cloves you get on some wines (never more apparent than in very ripe pinots) comes from oak.

When I typed that, I was least sure about the black pepper notes coming from barrels, because I can imagine a stainless or neutral syrah or zin possibly showing those.

Any thoughts on the pretty white spice flavors in good chardonnays? Probably from the barrel?

They can come, but they don’t necessarily come from oak. Especially the German Spätburgunder clones are known for their intensely peppery notes, but I’ve noticed these notes from Pinots from all around the globe.

These spicy notes cam be hard to distinguish from oak. In one tasting we had a wine I thought was a textbook Spätburgunder but many other attendees commented how the wine was excessively oaky (which I did not agree with). It turned out to be a Spätburgunder from Querbach, a traditionalist who has nothing but stainless steel in their cellar. Not a smidgen of oak there, only those spicy Pinot notes.