Have you ever heard a wine drinker say “there’s too much oak in this wine” or conversely “I love oaky Chardonnays” and wondered what that means? Oak can play a major role in the taste of many wines, particularly reds and some heavier-bodied whites. When used properly, the oak flavors themselves blend seamlessly into a wine. But oak does a lot more than add flavor to a wine; it also adds structure, stabilizes color, reduces potentially unripe tannins, and softens a wine overall.
Oak has been used for centuries for storage and transport of olive oil, honey, and wine due to its lighter weight, watertight properties, and “rollability”. It was far easier to roll barrels than lift clay amphorae which was the alternative.
The way that oak influences a wine depends on how old the oak barrel is, how much it was toasted, where the oak originated, and how big the barrel is. New oak contributes the most flavor to a wine as does a smaller-sized barrel as there is more liquid-to-oak contact. A typical barrel size is 225 liters but many other formats exist going up to 100,000 liters. The bigger the barrel, the less impact it is has on the wine.
Old oak (that has been re-used many times) doesn’t impart any flavor to a wine but does soften the wine and adds structure to it. Many Barolos are made this way in large old barrels called botti. Tawny Port is another wine that spends a long time in large old barrels. This is evident from its tawny brown color (from slow oxygen exposure) and rich flavors of nuts and dried fruit.
New oak is popular with premium red wine wines such as Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Rioja. Bordeaux typically uses 225-liter French barrels which are tighter-grained and less flavorful but impart stronger tannins. Rioja traditionally favors American oak which is more flavorful and has lighter tannins. Napa Cabernets are a mix of both French and American oak depending on the winery preference. New oak is also used for Chardonnay (in parts of Burgundy and California) as well as Sauvignon Blanc (California) to add weight, structure, and flavor.
Wines using new oak will not only be more structured and softer on the palate but will also impart some oak flavors (spice and toast for French and coconut and vanilla for American oak). These wines will often be more expensive too as as the barrel cost adds about $2-$4 per bottle. French oak is pricier, usually around $1300/barrel, as it must be hand-split in order to remain watertightroof. American oak can be sawn since it is higher in tyloses (structures which plug oak pores and keep it waterproof). This results in a “cheaper” price of around $800/barrel.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit a cooperage (where barrels are made), it is a fascinating process that requires great attention to detail. Oak for wine barrels typically comes from France (Nevers, Limousin, Vosges) and the U.S. (Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky, and Oregon). Several parts of Eastern Europe also produce wine barrels including Slovakia and Hungary. While there are over 400 oak species, the best ones for wine barrels are Quercus Alba, Petraea, and Robur.
Toasting is another key part of barrel-making which adds additional flavors to the wine through light, medium, or dark toasting. Dark toasting imparts the most flavor.
What does all this mean to you? If you’re interested in what oak brings to the party, go buy a Chablis(Chardonnay) from France and compare it to an oaked Côtes de Beaune Chardonnay or an oaked Napa Chardonnay like Rombauer. The Chablis should feel lighter-bodied and taste of mineral and pure citrus fruit flavors. The oaked wine should feel heavier in body with either spice or vanilla notes in addition to citrus or stone fruit.
On the red wine side, most reds are oaked in some way (new or old) due to the presence of tannins which white wines usually lack. Beaujolais Nouveau (which comes out near Thanksgiving each year) is an example of a red wine that sees no time in oak. Dolcetto, Barbera, and Gamay are other red grape varieties that are more conducive to unoaked styles with their lower tannins. These will generally taste light and fruity and be easy on the palate.
If you want to taste the oak difference in reds, it’s easiest to try the same grape variety so you can identify what oak does to the wine. Look for two Cabernet Sauvignons: try one by the Simply Naked brand (which was built on making wines that spend no time in oak) and compare it to one aged in new oak. The latter will have oak flavors (vanilla, toast, spice) as well as Cabernet’s typical blackberry, cassis, and herbal notes. It may also feel more round and full on the palate.
Keep in mind that more oak is not necessarily better and not all grape varieties do well with oak. Aromatic grapes like Riesling and Gewürztraminer are not typically oaked because it would mask their fruity and floral characters. Like any element in wine, everything needs to be in proper balance so you’re not just tasting one component.
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