The most significant difference between oaked wines and unoaked wine is written on the bottle.
Oaked wines come aged in oak barrels. Unoaked wines are not aged in oak barrels but possibly stainless steel containers.
While the difference is material, the subtleties of every bottle of wine mean that a barrel isn’t just a storage solution. It impacts the flavor, smell, age, and overall quality of the wine it holds.
Want to impress your friends next time you’re asked to bring a bottle of red? Keep reading to learn how the barrel impacts almost every aspect of your wine.
It’s All About Flavor: Oaked Wines
The average oaked wine offers a complex flavor that marries the acidity and fruity notes of the naked wine with the taste of the individual barrel it’s aged in. You’ll experience tasting notes like vanilla, spices, or coffee that add layers to what would otherwise be a fruity wine.
Unoaked wines featured a lighter body than any wine aged in any oak barrel. The heavy notes of cedar and vanilla allow the fresher fruity flavors to shine through without being muddled.
With fruit flavors come the acidity found in fruit. Unmasked acidity creates a fresher taste that stands out.
It’s important to remember that like other aged products, wine will take on flavors from what was previously stored in the barrel.
Most vineyards and winemakers order their barrels directly from the cooper. Moreover, high-end vineyards only use the barrel once. While whiskey aficionados might remember that scotch aged in sherry casks will take on some of the rich, fruity flavors and colors of the port or sherry casks it aged in.
Because wine is aged in virgin casks or only in barrels of the same wine type, all flavors are the product of the interaction between the wood and the grapes.
Oaked wine flavor profiles match the wood of the barrel. Three factors impact the flavor passed on to the wine:
- Wood type
Here’s how each of these impacts the wine.
The wood used to build oak barrels is typically American, Hungarian or French oak.
Each type of oak features different flavor profiles. A French oak barrel passes on elegant, earthy flavors like roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and savory spices. Meanwhile, American oak is lighter and sweeter with vanilla, coconut, and sweet exotic spices.
Winemakers don’t choose oak barrels at random. The flavor profiles imparted by the wood also depend on the grapes they’re paired with.
For example, Zinfandel grapes meet their potential when aged in an American oak barrel. Meanwhile, an oaked Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon prefer a French oak barrel.
Some grape varieties aren’t picky. Merlot blends well with both barrel types. Syrah also doesn’t discriminate between French or American.
In the world of wine and spirits, the process of drying the barrel is better known as seasoning.
The drying process reduces the moisture found in the wood before it’s sent off to become a barrel. In most cases, we dry barrels using a kiln or out in the open air.
Wood is seasoned for 18 months before it leaves the warehouse. You need at least that time to get rid of the harsh tannins and the raw, gree wood flavor. Two years (24 months) is considered the best seasoning time.
The tannins in the dried wood then interact with the tannins of the grapes. The goal is to use the barrel to enhance the wine and not distract from it.
Seasoning also impacts the toasting process we’ll describe in the next section.
When you’re cooking, the way you apply heat to your food impacts its flavor and texture. The same is true of barrels and wine. When the cooper prepares the barrel, they toast it.
When a barrel features a faster “toast” using higher temperatures, the wood generates a sweeter flavor. When we toast the barrel slowly, the characteristics are more gentle.
How to Choose the Perfect Oaky Wine
Whether it suits your palate or not, scientists know that oak takes certain kinds of wine to the next level.
Because of oak’s importance in wine, there are several ways to find oaked wine.
Before picking up your next bottle, keep in mind that the oak often determines the price point of the product. One barrel costs an average of $600 to $1,500. Winemakers may use the barrel up to four times, but some choose to use the barrel only once.
You’ll see the barrel price reflected on the price on the shelf: barrels feature half the production cost of wine.
Oaked wines sell for $30 and above. If you see wine for under $10 that claims to have oaky notes, then it likely wasn’t aged in real oak.
Faux Oak Flavors
Why can cheap wines boast “oak” flavors when they cost so little?
Food scientists have found ways to imitate the flavors created by oak in wine even in stainless steel containers. In some cases, wineries choose to use oak flavoring powder or an oak stave (a piece of wood) in the barrel to fake oak aging.
Don’t be fooled. Adding an oaky flavor doesn’t mean you’re drinking an oaked wine.
Oak barrels don’t just affect tasting notes and aromas. The barrel also contributes to the structure, aging process, and quality of the wine.
Older Wine is Better in Oak
Oak barrels impact the aging process by helping a wine age more gracefully.
If a bottle of red wine isn’t oaked, remember to double check its age. Once an unoaked red wine reaches seven years old, it’s beyond its prime because it will have oxidized.
Choose red wines that were aged in the barrel for 12 or 18 months for a better quality wine over time.
White Wine Doesn’t Age Well
Oak barrels help red wine age gracefully without compromising the body.
Generally, white wines aren’t oaked – except for oaked Chardonnay.
Because white wines don’t pair well with oak, you need to drink them while they’re young.
Barrels Make the Difference
While we like to emphasize the grapes, it’s the barrel that gives wine it’s unique flavor. Oaked wines take on the flavor profiles offered by the barrel, which depend on its origin, seasoning, and toasting.
It’s the barrel that makes the difference.
Want to make wine that includes all your favorite flavors? Check out our oak barrel wine making kits.