Do you want Oak or Unoaked wine?

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Do you want Oak or Unoaked wine?

One of my favorite distinctions about wine came from understanding oak and what I liked.  While in California, I heard the term “ABO” meaning “anything but oak” and I was surprised there’s a trend towards un-oaked wine.  I prefer a liberal use of oak on both white and reds, yet I originally had significant confusion about Oak.

In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about oak so you can better select what you like.

A winemakers recipe choices.  In general, using Oak is just one choice in a winemaker’s recipe amongst:

  1. When to crush grapes or separate seeds, stems, skins.
    1. Alcohol level
    1. Sugar or yeast additions
    1. Length of time on the lees, or yeast byproduct. 
    1. Malolactic Acid fermentation or not, and at what level.
    1. To use oak, what kind of oak and how long on oak? 

General effects of oak.  Often asking in oak provides a silky texture, darker coloring.

The “Angels Share”.  The oak is porous and allows both evaporation and oxygen exchange (thus small amounts of oxidation) which changes the wine.   The evaporation is not much, which is often referred to as the Angels’ Share!  The oxygen is not enough to allow spoilage or oxidation, but there is a flavor influence.

Softening tannins and acid mellowing.  Aging in oak generally reduces the wine tannin potency, softening the “edges” of the strong tannins, and allows mellowing of acidity, giving it a smoother and creamier texture.  When no Oak is present, such as in steel vats, they forgo oak flavor exchange and mellowing, maintaining crisp and fresh acid levels.

Oak choices a winemaker must make:

Oak’s exposure time:  Generally the longer time on Oak the more expense the wine becomes and the flavor changes that occur.   Oak has varieties too.  A lot is going on when oak is used and how long exposed.   

The oak size. Today there are many options for winemakers to use oak:

  1. Small barrells.  Often 59-60 gallons, are the priciest and most intense contact with the oak for maximum exchange.
  2. Large barrels, standing two stories tall, allow for oak but not maximum contact.
  3. Chips. An interesting creation called “free floating chips” or “staves” are oak chips stirred into the wine to forego entire barrel purchasing.  While this probably will not mellow the wine acids, it will bring oak complex flavors.

The barrel toasting level, called “cooperage” literally season the wood first in open air, and then in a an open flame to ‘toast’ or fire the wood interior. Some are performing the toasting in a kiln, but have found the tannin softening is not as intense.  Type of toasting important to choose when understanding your palette preference:

  1. Light toast equals very minor smoky taste
  2. Medium toast starts bringing out wood flavors, light cigar and herbal flavors can occur.
  3. Dark, heavy or charred toast transmits intense flavors of mocha, cinnamon, spice, smoke, cigar, and wood earthy flavors will result.  Often used on heavy reds, like Cabernet or Burgundian blends

Age of the barrel. The older a barrel, the less exchange of flavors, but sometimes the subtle is what is sought.  New barrels can give a very strong taste.  A wood barrel can be used many times before retired, bringing out new flavors, but eventually becoming ‘neutral’ and not exchanging flavors while still letting the wine change and mellow.

Initial use of the barrel:  Today winemakers are experimenting with barrels first used to make whiskey or scotch, then used to make wine, exchanging unique flavors.

Type of Oak?  The most exciting thing I learned was exactly what type of oak I liked!  One of my favorite educational session was at a California winery where they set up a side-by-side tasting of oak varietals.  Neutral vs French vs Hungarian vs American oaks to determine which I liked better.  I decidedly liked the French oak best. Knowing what oak you like is also an important distinction.   Already referred to, I love French Oak flavors, so it’s important to understand what kind of oak you prefer.

  1. French Oak.  A porous wood that exchanges “mellowing’ flavors and a sensation of light sweetness even if the wine is highly dry.  Flavors are perceived as vanilla or other natural sweeteners. These are the most expensive of the barrels (around $1,200 a barrel) and so other barrel uses may be for cost reasons   
  2. American Oak. Coming from eastern USA or Oregon (found to be similar to French wood), American Oak is often associated with earthy flavor exchanges, giving the wine a complex edge. It tones the acidy.  Often selected for bold powerful wines desiring earthly or smoke flavors.  The price may be $600-800 barrel, so less pricier than French.
  3. Hungarian has a balance of both flavors, with less intensity than American or French, but still sweeter, spicy and caramel-like flavors.
  4. Slovenian oak, apparently, is often used in Italy, having a tight grain, low aroma.
  5. Other countries, such as Russia, Canada.

For more on oak species, I learned a lot from Wikipedia. 

Oak flavors and labeling aides.  Descriptive words give you clues.  They rarely say what type of oak, or will say the time of aging (i.e., 6-mo in oak).  Otherwise look for these words on the labels :  

  1. French Oak – biggest words are “creamy” and toasted, and sweeter natural flavors of butter, caramel, crème brule, vanilla, and butterscotch.
  2. American Oak flavors to me present flavors of coconut, cloves, wood, tobacco, grass, rustic, soil, smokey/smoke, earthy, etc.  They might allow darker fruit tastes such as blackberry, blueberry, etc.
    1. If the label say “hints of” it means it was only aged a very short time in oak, like 3 months vs a year.  The more aging time, the more flavors and often the more expense, justifying a higher priced bottle.  Sometimes they list softer, less-acific fruit tastes like peach.
  3. No Oak words will refer to flavors as bright, fruit-forward, citrus, specific fruits (i.e., apple, grapefruit, peach), or “crisp” because the oak did not mello the acid.

Flavors are often differentiated enough so you can draw conclusions about whether oak was used.  

Learning your palette preferences helps in selection of wine.  I hope this article helps you to understand oak and to determine your preferences. Write me how I might further help!


Studying wine since the early 80's, I've become a Wine Studies Education level III solely though interest, and I occasionally represent an Italian importer, while working full-time as a financial national speaker. I'm always seeking a 'find' whether taste or value wine versions.

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