The Hype Behind Oaked Wine: Is It Worth It?

Is the hype behind oaked wine warranted? 

The short answer: absolutely. Now stick with us for the science to back up why oaked wine is worth it.

You may have heard the terms oak and unoaked wine tossed around in conversation. The other day, I overheard a woman at the bar ask for an “unoaked Chardonnay” and thought to myself, “wow, that lady knows her stuff.” 

The good news? You can know yours too! 

Oaking is an aging technique that dates back to the 1600’s, before there were even glass bottles. Back in that age, wines were stored, aged, sold, and distributed in wooden barrels simply because that was the only available option. Also, barrels are easy to roll. So if someone was in dire need of a glass, well, Roll Out The Barrel…  and do it quick. 

Times have changed, and thank goodness, (can you imagine heading to your nearest liquor store and lugging home a big barrel of wine?) but we still use oak barrels to perfect our varietals post harvest. 

How does oak aging enhance the flavor of wine?

There are three primary reasons to age wine in oak barrels, and all can be backed by science. While there’s some debate whether the flimflam of decanting, aerating, or using the right glass actually improves the taste or quality of wine, there’s no room for speculation with oak aging.

The proof is in the pudding – the top 55 most expensive wines are all barrel-aged in some way. 

So how exactly does oak aging enhance the taste of wine? Enter our good friend, Science. 

First off, barrel aging adds flavor compounds to the wine. 

If you’re familiar with the process of brewing beer, additives are a great way to poke and prod the beer’s flavor and really make it your own. When it comes to wine, there’s not a lot you can do post harvest on the flavor front – what you see is what you get. That’s where oak barrels come in. 

Oak adds aromatic compounds to the wine. Oak lactones have specific aromas of coconut, but these aromatic compounds can also present themselves in the form of vanilla, spice and clove, caramel, or smoke.

Winemakers can also play with heat in the form of burning or “heat radiation” to increase these different aromatic compounds. 

If you’d like to get really nitty gritty with the scientific components, here’s a list of specific compounds from our friends at Wine Folly.

FLAVOR COMPOUNDS FROM OAK
  • furfural dried fruit, burned almond, burnt sugar
  • guaiacol burn overtones
  • oak lactone woody, dill and coconut notes
  • eugenol spices, cloves and smoke character
  • vanillan vanilla
  • syringaldehyde vanilla-like

Secondly, barrel aging enhances the flavor of wine by allowing the slow ingress of oxygen. This slowed down exposure to oxygen over an extended period of time gives the wine a smoother, less astringent feel. 

Lastly, the barrel provides the perfect environment for specific metabolic reactions to occur that make the wine taste more creamy. Malolactic fermentation is one of these notable reactions.

Why oak? 

Now you may be asking yourself, why oak barrels? Are other types of wood used for barrel aging?

There are three accepted types of oak aging – French oak, American oak, and Hungarian/Eastern European oak. 

Some wine experts group French oak and Hungarian/Eastern European oak together, so for the sake of simplicity, we’ll approach oaking from two distinct categories – American oak vs. European oak. 

As expected, both offer different flavor profiles based on climate. The greatest difference between the two types of oak is density, which affects the aromatic compounds and oxygenation. European/French oak is generally more dense, therefore the wine is exposed to less lactones and oxygen. This makes European oak ideal for lighter wines like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.

On the other hand, American oak is better for bolder wines like Cabernet Sauvignon that lean into robust flavors and can take on the oxygen ingress. 

As for the choice of wood itself, oak is very strong, but also breathable. This perfection combination of porous and powerful makes it an ideal choice for aging. 

At the end of the day, you can actually age wine in many different types of wood – chestnut, acacia, iberian oak, english oak… even pine!

In Vino Finito 

The next time you’re deciding between two bottles of wine, opt for the oak-barreled one. After all, science says it’s better. What’s your favorite oak-aged wine? Let us know in the comments! 

To get a taste of oak-aged wine for yourself, try a bottle of our oak-aged Folk and Fable reds, aged for three months in oak bourbon barrels. Call our Wine Concierge team 1-844-223-5527 or email them at [email protected] and request Folk & Fable in your box! For more wine wisdom, interesting tidbits, recipes and more, subscribe to our newsletter, Glass Half Full.

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Bright Cellars

Our staff is full of passionate wine lovers. With our amazing sommeliers at the helm, we’ve been schooled on all things wine. We came together to write this article, in hopes of spreading a little wine-ducation with you.

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