You may have heard statements like, “I really love an oaky Chardonnay” or “There’s too much wood on this Pinot Noir.” Experienced wine drinkers know a little something about oak’s influence on wine, while new wine drinkers are probably wondering why there’s wood in the wine.
Oak barrels have been used for fermenting and aging wine for hundreds of years. Much of this was out of necessity because that’s what they had. However, wine makers discovered that oak adds flavor, aroma, body and complexity to wines.
When I say oak, I mean the effect of fermenting and aging wine in new oak barrels. Chemical compounds in the oak react with the wine and add aromas and flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, caramel and coconut along with a smoky or toasty character. New oak barrels have the strongest influence on the wine. After two or three vintages, there is little or no flavor left in the barrel.
Aging wine in oak barrels also allows it to receive a little air without any spoilage. As some of the wine evaporates, the result is more concentrated aromas and flavors.
To Oak or Not to Oak
Over the years, there has been much discussion about the use of oak by winemakers. Many wine experts, as well as consumers, feel that the aromas and flavors imparted by too much oak can overpower the natural varietal character of the grapes. However, there is no doubt that many wines benefit greatly from the influence of oak aging.
Premium red wines like those made from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo develop a smoother, more complex texture when aged in oak. White wines, particularly those made from Chardonnay, develop a buttery and nutty character when fermented and aged in oak. When in balance, the oak enhances the complex fruit character of the wines.
Since oak adds flavor and texture to wine at the expense of crispness and acidity, some grape varieties do not always benefit from oak aging. Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc come to mind, even though some producers oak age Sauvignon Blanc and call it Fume Blanc. Light and delicately flavored foods pair up much better with crisp, unoaked white wines.
All Oak Is Not Created Equally
Most oak wine barrels are made from French or American oak. American oak has a wider grain and lower levels of wood tannins than French. American oak also adds more vanilla notes and sweetness to wine, while French oak, with its tighter grain and higher wood tannins, has less influence on the aroma and flavor, but adds more to the texture and complexity.
Typically, a wine barrel holds about 60 gallons of wine. A new French oak barrel costs just more than $1,000 and an American oak barrel is about $600. This will help you see why wines aged in new oak barrels will cost more.
Winemakers who want oak on their cheaper wines, without the high cost of new barrels, will use oak chips or even barrel staves. The resulting influence on the wine is generally not of the same high quality as that of oak barrels, as the wine then comes across as a little too woody and even a bit harsh.
The toasty and smoky notes in oaked wines come from the actual charring of the inside of the barrels when they are made. This is called toasting. Barrel toast can be light medium or heavy, and each has a different influence on the wine.
Light toast gives more of the typical oak-based sweet, vanilla notes; while heavy toast will add more smoky aromas and flavors, as well as some darker color.
Comparison Tasting for Oak
One of the best ways I know to see how oak influences wine is to do your own comparison tasting. Chardonnay is the best wine for this purpose since it is very easy to find oaked and unoaked bottles.
Get a bottle of an oaked Chardonnay like J. Lohr’s Riverstone Chardonnay or Chateau St. Jean’s Sonoma County Chardonnay. Next get a bottle of an unoaked Chardonnay like Moulin du Pont Macon Villages or Four Vines Naked Chardonnay. All are $15 or under. Now pour yourself, and a few friends, a glass of each wine.
Next, sniff them side-by-side. The toasty, buttery, vanilla notes will stand out on the oaked wine and the varietal fruit aromas of green apple, pear and peach will stand out on the unoaked wine. Now taste them; the same types of flavors will stand out on each. This will give you the ability to pick up on the oak notes in other types of wines.
Oak should enrich a wine and never be the dominant feature. When it comes to the use of oak in winemaking, like many things in life, moderation is the key. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with 15 years of experience with the wine and spirits industry. He holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and an Advanced Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at email@example.com.