De-Geeking Wine: To Oak or Not to Oak

Engaging with the wine community can be intimidating for people who may not be familiar with the often complicated terminology that goes along with it. One thing that I like to do regularly on this blog is to help make wine (and discussions about wine) more accessible. In the past, I’ve explained terms like “terroir” and “dry”. Today I’d like to talk about what it means for a wine to be “oaked” and “unoaked” – why do winemakers use oak and what does it do for the finished wine?

Basically, oaked wine is made from juice that has been placed in oak barrels. Oaking changes the flavor profile, texture, and color of a wine. There are a variety of barrels that can be used, including French, Hungarian, American, and hybrid barrels. The flavors can vary depending on the wood used. For instance, American oak flavors can include notes of dill and coconut, while Hungarian oak has been described as having a nuttier flavour. The type of wood changes the wine in its own unique way, but is only part of the equation. The wood can also be “toasted” in a variety of ways, including sun- or fire-toasted, and the level of toast changes the amount of tannins or oaky flavour in the wine. Think of toasting as the spicing stage of the wine-making process, giving the winemaker the chance to tinker with the flavor profile. The type of barrel makes a big difference in the finished product – an expert can often tell you the type of oak used simply by tasting the finished wine! French oak will lend a hint of vanilla to the wine, and toasting the barrel can bring in notes of caramelized cinnamon – the heavier the toast, the stronger the flavors. Toasting can impart spicy clove flavours or charred and smoky aromas. A lighter toast will give the wine an oakier taste. Heavily oaked wines are still quite popular, but they have seen a decline over the last decade, as they tend not to complement food very well.

Red wines are more frequently oaked than whites. When you’re talking about an oaked white wine, you’re most likely going to be referring to a Chardonnay. Most whites are unoaked – Rieslings, for example, are generally placed in stainless steel. Sometimes whites are fermented in steel and then matured in oak, leading to a darker coloring. Oak barrels can be expensive, so many wines gain their flavor through having oak chips, cubes, or staves added to the juice during the fermentation process. This process is cheaper and uses far less wood than the traditional barrels.

A good winemaker has an end goal in mind at the very beginning. The winemaking process is crafted backward to the picking of the very first grape. Picking early leads to a drier wine – as the season goes on, the sugar content rises. As you now know, the type of barrel and its level of toasting also has a huge effect. All of these choices together add up to a particular wine’s unique flavor. Your palate is also unique to you. I recommend trying a wide range of different varieties of wine to figure out what you really like in a wine – your palate is expanded through experimenting, so have fun and don’t be afraid to ask questions about your wines! If you don’t like a specific type of wine the first time you try it, try another bottle from a different winemaker. They may have a different approach that better suits your palate!