A great way to enhance flavor, aroma, and character, oak has played a prominent role in wine production for over two millennia. The interaction between wine and oak works well with a number of different grape varieties — cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, in particular. The effects of wood aging results in a wonderfully concentrated wine that’s often completely different from its original, un-oaked state.
Types of barrel
There are two types of oak barrels commonly used in winemaking to look out for: French and American. French oak has long been known as the gold standard amongst winemakers. Its consistent fine-grained wood adds a degree of elegance and complexity to the wine that’s unmatched by American oak. Alternatively, American oak wines have fewer tannins and wider grains, which result in a stronger influence on the wine’s flavor and aromatics. However, since oak barrels are expensive, many winemakers have found alternative ways to achieve rich oak flavors in their wines. Oak staves, for example, are large planks of oak that are added to wine stored in steel barrels. Oak staves are much cheaper and less time-consuming but still impart oak flavors, aromas, and tannins in the wine.
Complex and superior flavors
Oak enriches the flavor of wine immensely and adds greater complexity, richness, and fullness. It typically adds notes of butter, caramel, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, mocha, and toffee. In white wines — most notably Chardonnay — French oak offers a slight smokiness and nuttiness, while American oak imparts a sweet flavor with notes of caramelized popcorn and toffee. In fact, oakiness is commonly considered as a typical note of Chardonnay wine. When it comes to red wine, American oak typically adds beautiful notes of cinnamon and coconut. Alternatively, French oak imparts hints of warm spices like clove and cedar. You may even pick up notes of mocha or espresso in the wine when the oak has been toasted beforehand.
Vintage vs. new oak
When it comes to selecting an oak aged wine, the vintage can be a major indicator of its taste and quality. As vintages become older, the oak barrels storing the wine naturally end up imparting less and less flavor. In newer barrels, however, the oak’s influence plays a more prominent role in the wine. As such, it’s common to find some wines have been partially aged in “new” oak barrels to ensure they receive some of the flavor- and aromatic-enriching benefits of the oak. In turn, the rest of the wine remains aged in older vintage oak barrels, and the two different mixtures are thoroughly blended together before bottling.
While keeping wine in oak barrels initially began as a storage method, it soon became popularized for the resulting superior flavor. The best way to pick up on the subtleties of oaked wine is by taste testing an oaked against an un-oaked wine. The smoky, buttery, and toasted notes of the oaked wine will stand out clearly.