Oak aging is one of the most pronounced ways a winemaker can influence the final product. Depending on the age of the barrel and the duration of exposure, vanilla, tannin and woody aromas are imparted into the wine. Most oak barrels that are used in California were made either in France or America. The differences between these two types of barrels are more noticeable when they are young.
France makes the finest and most expensive oak barrels in the world. Much of the wood comes from several forests that Napoleon planted to plan for ship build that never occurred. French oak is grown a cooler climate than America and it has a tighter grain. This imparts more subtle flavors into the wine.
American oak is grown in a warmer climate than France and has a looser grain. Additionally, the staves used to make American barrels are traditionally sawn rather than split. These two factors make the flavors it imparts into wine much stronger. Full bodied varietals, including Syrah and Zinfandel, take well to American oak.
Depending on the style of wine, barrels can be toasted to varying degrees. Heavy barrel toast is usually only used for grapes with pronounced flavors. White varietals are rarely aged in anything other than the lightest toasts.
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