Aging a wine in oak (dust, chips, staves, barrels, etc.) is a technique used my many winemakers to create certain aromas/flavors and tannins/mouth-feel in the wine. Different types of wood from different forests around the world add different characteristics of varying strength, so the type of wood the winemaker chooses is particularly important. In an attempt to skim the surface of what results when a wine is oak-aged, it’s important to know a little about the most common types of wood used to age wine—American Oak and French Oak.
In the most simplistic terms, American Oak creates intense flavors/aromas in wine, while subtly changing the mouth-feel. It gives both red and white wines strong vanilla aromas/flavors and usually adds a sweet character, which is different than making it a sweet wine. French Oak, on the other hand, changes the mouth-feel of the wine, while having a more nuanced effect on the aromas/flavors. The French Oak is particularly common in red wine making, as that is where tannins are most important. While tannins will be part of a future TTT&T, for the moment, think of them as the astringent, pulling sensation on your gums.
In terms of tasting oaked and unoaked wine, I think the best side-by-side comparison is a California Chardonnay and a Chablis. California Chardonnays are often aged in American Oak, while Chablis are not aged in oak at all. Red wine comparisons can be a little trickier, but for a French Oak versus American Oak comparison, I recommend tasting a Northern Rhône red wine (Syrah/Shiraz grapes and French oak) and an Australian Shiraz (Syrah/Shiraz grapes and American Oak).
A couple of tips to remember—
First, butter or buttery popcorn flavors in wine aren’t from oak-aging, but rather from malolactic fermentation. Some people confuse the aromas/flavors because they’re associated with California Chardonnays, which have heavy vanilla (an oak characteristic) and butter (a malolactic fermentation characteristic) aromas/flavors, but the aromas/flavors occur because of different wine making techniques.
Second, don’t be a grape hater. It’s easy to confuse disliking a grape variety with disliking a wine making technique. If you aren’t enjoying the aromas/flavors of a particular wine, ask yourself if the problems are related to oak-aging. Is it the vanilla? The smoke? The coconut? If so, try a wine that is made with a different type of oak or with no oak at all. You would be surprised at the number of people who tell me that they dislike Chardonnay, but then love un-oaked Chardonnay when I recommend that they tried it. So, don’t be afraid to experiment…you might be surprised by what you enjoy.
Common Oak-related Aromas/Flavors in Wine
The Wine Whore says
I have been really into the differences between un-oaked and oaked wines… thank you for an awesome and informative post!
It's such a strange thing to be fascinated by, but I find the difference that oak can make in a wine to be really interesting. Glad to hear I'm not the only one 😉
You nailed it when you said, “don’t be a grape hater. It’s easy to confuse disliking a grape variety with disliking a wine making technique. If you aren’t enjoying the aromas/flavors of a particular wine, ask yourself if the problems are related to oak-aging. Is it the vanilla? The smoke? The coconut? If so, try a wine that is made with a different type of oak or with no oak at all. You would be surprised at the number of people who tell me that they dislike Chardonnay, but then love un-oaked Chardonnay when I recommend that they tried it. So, don’t be afraid to experiment…you might be surprised by what you enjoy”.
That is so very true and great advice. There are a lot of closed minded consumers that too easily write-off an entire varietal over a few bad experiences. With that being said, if wineries were forced to disclose things such as ingredients, additives and the wine making technique used on their labels just like any other beverage, then perhaps consumers could get more tuned in with what it is that is causing their likes and dislikes towards a particular wine.
Alleigh, I completely agree with the "don't be a grape hater" comment as well. It took me YEARS to figure out why I loved most Syrah but usually hated Shiraz, even though I knew that they were the same grape. It turns out that most Australian Shiraz is aged in eucalyptus, I believe, and I *hate* the flavor it gives. (Big shout-out to the bartenders at Lelabar in the West Village, NYC for teaching me this!). It was fantastic to learn that, since before I was afraid to order most any Shiraz at all.
I'm always amazed by the number of people that are "grape haters." Unfortuantely, bad wine exists…and in every grape variety.
Kami, one slight correction to your comment (and no disrespect to the bartenders at Lelabar) is that Shiraz isn't aged in eucalyptus, although it will often have eucalyptus or minty aromas/flavors. The characteristic is prominent in grapes that are grown in hotter climates, so the taste/aroma is definitely there. However, it's not actually aged in eucalyptus.