Definition - What does French Oak mean?
French Oak is one of three main oak types, including American Oak and Hungarian/ Eastern European Oak, used for making wine barrels. There are two types of white oak species grown in France - Quercus Patraea and Quercus Robur, both species of oak are found in France’s Limousin forest, while only Quercus Patraea is found in the other forests of Allier, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosages. Patraea is the most common species used for making wine barrels, because it is considered the finer of the two species.
French oak imparts subtle, softer flavors into the wine. It is often used for both red and white wines, and is soft enough for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay aging - it’ll add to the wine without overpowering it.
WineFrog explains French Oak
French Oak is the traditional type of oak used in the making of wine. It is the most expensive option, selling for $800 - $3,600 per barrel (versus American oak barrels at $200 - $500 per barrel). French Oak has a tighter grain and less dense than American oak, imparting subtle flavors of vanilla, cedar and sometimes butterscotch. The silky tannins help the wine age without being too tough in the mouth. French Oak also imparts a less “oaky” flavor and scent to the wine, making any characteristics of oak in the wine subtle, spicy and smooth like satin or silk.
Although French Oak possesses a tighter grain, this grain tightness varies from forest to forest, and since the tightness of the grain determines the rate of extraction of the flavors, the origin of oak used in French Oak barrels plays an important role for the winemaker. In fact, many winemakers use a blend of barrels from different forests to take advantage of the unique characteristics.
French Oak barrels can be reused over several years due to its grain spacing, imparting the same characteristics year in and year out. For many winemakers, this is what makes French Oak worth the investment.