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