5 Wines that Embrace French Oak

5 Wines that Embrace French Oak

The French are chic and stylish with an elegance that seems born within them. Same holds true for French oak barrels, the gold standard in the wine world when it comes to aging still wine.

While relatively easy to find new American oak barrels for under $500, the price point for new French oak barrels starts at $1000 each. A new barrel from the storied Limousin forest can cost a winery $2000.

That said, many oenophiles happily pay the price for the smooth, rich notes imparted by French oak barreling.

Vanilla, caramel, buttercream, coffee, coconut, almond, and hazelnut – all are flavors commonly found in wines aged in French oak that serve to soften the tannic bite young wines often have.

Charcoal, tobacco, cigar, dill and spices like nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon add structure and unique aromas and flavors. Tar and licorice are also flavors derived from oak barreling. While these last two aren't compatible in most whites, they add a complimentary note to many medium to full bodied reds.

Make Mine Toasty

Experienced winemakers are well versed on the flavors that specific barrels yield. In France, oak barrels come from multiple forests: Limousin, Nevers, Alliers, Vosges, and Troncais. Barrels from each forest lend subtle yet distinct differences.

Another variable is in the toasting of the barrel. Some wines are aged in barrels that bear the stamp MT. This means the barrel has been subjected to a moderate amount of inside charring. The stamp HT refers to the top round “head” of the barrel to also be toasted which adds additional toasted oak exposure to the young wine.

Not all wine is aged in barrels. Many wines spend their entire life in stainless steel cooperage before bottling. The reason is that not all varietals hold up to the strong flavors developed during barrel aging. Light fruity wines – both whites and reds - should never be oaked because their delicate flavors are easily overwhelmed.

That said, many varietals gain elegance and structure with time in the barrel. Aging time varies from a few months to several years, depending on what nuances the winemaker hopes to achieve in the final wine.

Top 5 Wine Varietals that Meld with French Oak:

1. Chardonnay

While many people prefer “sans chene” or unoaked for their Chardonnay, there's no escaping the magical combination of a malolactic Chard aged in smooth French oak for 6 to12 months.

Malolactic fermentation is the secondary fermentation introduced to select wines to convert sour malic acid to the smoother, buttery lactic acid. Aging in French barrels adds yet another layer and makes wine silky smooth on the palate.

Bring on the Love!

If you are an escargot lover, this is a dream pairing. The garlicky butter sauce and salty snails are enhanced by the smooth, buttery, oakiness of the wine. Crusty french bread just prolongs the pleasure.

Another great pairing on the vegan side is Creamy Fettuccine Alfredo with Mixed Mushrooms. Rich flavors and earthiness blend nicely with butter and oak, with just enough acid to balance the meal.

2. Sauvignon Blanc

Who knew? The French Do! Fume Blanc means “Smoked White, ” and it is exquisite. The majority of Sauvignon Blanc wines are aged in stainless cooperage however if you can find a Fume Blanc, try it!

Sauvignon Blanc is a medium body white wine with notes of green bell pepper, pepperoncini, and lemon grass. Some also have subtle fruit, generally green apple or melon; however, many grapes grown in southern climates take on tropical notes of guava and kiwi. The introduction of French Oak to this combination yields wine that goes well with grilled vegetables.

Candlelight for Two

Cornish Game Hens stuffed with seasoned wild rice are perfect with a Sauvignon Blanc aged in French Oak. The smoky, vegetal flavors of the wine enhance the meal, making each bite one to savor in the candlelight.

3. Cabernet Sauvignon

While the mighty King of Reds can stand up to the relative harshness of American oak, when aged in new French Oak, his royal heritage comes shining through.

Cabernet Sauvignon often has flavors of bell pepper, tobacco, and leather mixed with bright cherry. All of these are strong flavors. Aging in French oak mellows these flavors, coaxing them to meld with each other instead of warring for dominance.

Traditional Elegance

A regal Cabernet with French oak pedigree is the perfect match for a medium rare filet mignon topped with butter and blue cheese. Add some sauteed mushrooms and asparagus spears, and you have a meal fit for Buckingham Palace.

Meatless eaters can also rejoice because this style of Cabernet pairs very well with rich cheese and vegetables. Spinach or zucchini lasagna with a white garlic cheese sauce and tons of fresh Parmesan-Reggiano shredded table side is a surprisingly exquisite pairing for a French oaked Cabernet Sauvignon.

4. Merlot

It is almost a sin to put a perfectly smooth Merlot in an American oak barrel. While not delicate in the least, Merlot has a regal elegance that is enhanced with aging in French oak barrels.

A sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot shares the same cherry, bell pepper, leather and tobacco flavors in a more subtle, smooth package. Putting a Merlot into French oak for a year renders a smooth, balanced, smoke nuanced wine that is fine with a wedge of smoked Gouda and your favorite couch snuggler.

Prodigal Son

Classic Italian Cioppino is a wonderful pairing for a French oaked Merlot. The richness of the Merlot cuts the tang of the red sauce while not being drowned out by the strong flavors of the Cioppino. Because the fish and seafood are bathed in the red sauce, it also goes nicely with this smoother red wine.

5. Syrah

Many Syrah wines are not aged in oak barrels however that isn't to say that an oaked Syrah is a bad idea. On the contrary, the lush berry-plum flavors of Syrah mature nicely when put into French oak for a few months to tame the fruit bomb burst on the palate with a bit of subtle smokiness.

Stoke the Fires of Passion

A chilly winter evening is made warm and cozy with the addition of a roaring fire. Add in your significant other, and it's a night custom-made for romance.

Nothing says love like a wonderful home cooked meal. Why not take it to the next level and woo your beloved with a meal fit for a Prince or Princess? Don't worry; it's easy!

Smoked Pheasant au Vin, ala Americain Mademoiselle Vino

The most difficult part is finding a whole bird that's plucked and ready for roasting. Local Asian markets can be helpful in locating a plump game bird.

Brine your bird! Use a mixture of 1 Tbsp coarse salt, one tsp granulated garlic, a couple minced sage leaves, a sprig each of Greek oregano and marjoram and a few juniper berries with 2 quarts of water. Submerge the bird and let sit for 30 minutes. Rinse off, then dry carefully to remove excess salt.

Brining is not necessary, but you are doing a huge disservice to the bird not to mention losing a ton of flavor and moisture, especially if your bird goes into a smoker. Take the extra time. It is well worth it.

In a dutch oven pot, heat olive oil and saute 1 cup of thin sliced white onions. Remove onions when browned and turn up heat to sear the pheasant on all sides, taking care to make the skin nice and crispy and to render the minimal fat in the pheasant's skin.

When nicely browned, remove pheasant and reduce heat to simmer. Add 1 Tbsp each minced sage, Greek oregano and marjoram and stir until the fresh herbs wilt. Deglaze pot by adding 1 cup of your favorite French oak aged Syrah, stirring well to pick up the browned bits of goodness that stick to the pan, then add in 1 cup of chicken stock, returning the onions to the pot.

Pop the Dutch oven into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven and cook until the legs are pulling away from the body of the pheasant.

At this point, some people like to serve with a thin sauce. If you want to kick up the satisfaction factor, reduce the juice that's remaining in the Dutch oven. Put it back on medium-high heat and stir until it reduces to a thicker consistency.

To pump up the flavor, add 2 Tbsp of real butter and a cup of sliced baby mushrooms to the sauce - stir until soft. Pour a couple of glasses of wine, pull apart that pheasant, slather on that decadent sauce and savor!

It's a Wrap!

With cool, winter weather already on the horizon, there's no time like now to stock up on your favorite Craveyon wines. A wine club subscription is your passport to a wide range of premium wines sourced from the best wine regions and allows you to try many wines for a small hit on your wallet.

Craveyon has many events each month, and the general adult public is always welcome to attend an event – at no charge – and sample a number of our fine wines.

Stay warm and keep that wine cellar stocked for those wintry nights.




Cindy Lemos
Cindy Lemos


Cindy Lemos, known as the WinoGal, has a love of all things wine, especially when pairing with food and social events. Trained by Stewart Good at the esteemed Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, she continues that passion and knowledge in her writing and by executing wine parties and dinners, informative wine tasting sessions and winery tours. She's followed wine makers from vineyard to harvest to crush, then through the often intricate process of creating wine. She loves to experiment with food and has a flair for creating menus that utilize her unique blend of “Southern Comfort tweaked with a fresh, Mediterranean zest.” You can follow her adventurous wine and food odyssey on Twitter and Facebook and here at Craveyon.


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