Oaked vs Unoaked Wine. What's Best?

Oaking adds flavours and aromas and changes a wine into something completely new. But does it make it better? Not necessarily.

There is a typical flavour of oaked wine that you can taste and whether you like this taste is what we at Pulp will help you define. With unoaked wines you taste the pure grape. However, oaking doesn’t necessarily mean hiding the grape as it often is the winemaker's attempt at making something better.

Do you wanna spot the difference first hand? In this post we suggest wines widely available for you to try and see the difference for yourself. 


 

Why does it matter?

An oak barrel costs £250-£600, which is the reason why oaked wines can easily cost up to 20% more. Spending more for oaked wines only makes sense when the grape and oak are a really good fit and you like the flavour of oaked wines. An super-oaked Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley at the top end of the range can cost a fortune, and although the end product has been lovingly made, aged and looked after, if you don’t like oaky flavours, you're bound to be disappointed.

 

 
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When a wine spends time in a barrel, it is exposed to two things – Wood and Air. Both of them have a double impact on a wine's taste and aroma.

 
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Oak passes on aromas that the wine wouldn’t otherwise have. The winemaker will choose the style of barrel for his wine for the flavour that it imparts (more details at the end of the post).

Oak adds tannins into the wine. To understand why that happens, think of when you accidentally suck on the wooden stirrer you get with takeaway coffee; you feel a sensation of your gums and cheeks drying up. This is the effect that tannins have on the flavour of the wine.

 
 

Oak thickens the wine. Part of the wine in the barrel evaporates as, although the barrel is watertight, it’s not airtight. In one year up to 10% of the water in the wine evaporates and seeps out through the wood's pores.

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Oak softens the wines. As the air seeps out, it also seeps in and oxygen transforms the wine. With time wine becomes softer and the tannins fade. The winemaker therefore has to choose exactly how long to keep the wine in the barrel, as it will continue changing whilst in there.

 

 
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Clues to spot an oaked white:

 
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These 3 aromas are the most common clue of oaking in whites. A wine’s grape doesn’t have these aromas so they come 100% from the wood.

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Oaked wines have a more intense colour as they darken whilst in the barrel.

Normally white wines don’t have tannins, but oaked ones are different. If you feel your gums drying, for sure the wine is oaked.

see for yourself

Here are a couple of suggestions of wines widely available at major wine shops and supermarkets to try the difference first hand.

Chardonnay is a very versatile grape that can be oaked or unoaked. New World Chardonnays typically are oaked, with some ending up being quite ‘in your face’. To try the classic oaky and buttery version, pick a Californian one, for example the Chardonnays made by Kendall-Jackson and Clos du Bois

On the other hand, Chablis - a wine made 100% from Chardonnay grape - is most often unoaked (or very mildly oaked). In this case the choice is even easier - you can grab most fairly priced Chablis from your local wine shop and supermarket, and it will do the trick! Good examples are those made by William Fevre.

 

 
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Clues to spot an oaked red wine:

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These 3 aromas are the most common clue of oaking in reds. A wine’s grape doesn’t have these aromas so they come 100% from the barrel.

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A deep red, possibly with hints of brick, is a good clue of oaking, as the wine darkens whilst in the barrel.

*Just a quick note if you’ve ever had a headache from a cheap bottle. Mass produced wines are added with a liquid ‘oak essence’ (also known as Sinatin 17). As you may expect, this shortcut has no relation to the complexities of oaking in barrel and can result in a blinder of a headache.

 

See for yourself

Most red wines have some form of oaking ageing and the exceptions are fewer than with whites. Nonetheless, here are a couple of suggestions of wines widely available at major wine shops and supermarkets to try the difference.

As a rule of thumb, Italian winemakers make use of oaking to a lesser extent than most other wine countries. When they age red wine in barrels, they often use very big vats that impart almost no aromas to the wine. That's because they want to let a grape express its own aromas more than anything else. To try a wine that's as unoaked as it gets, go for a Barbera d'Alba - for example the one made by Fontanafredda or, if you're UK based, you can also try a good entry level from Tesco Finest

At the other extreme, the Rioja region of Spain has traditionally produced some of the most heavily oaked reds. Going for a Reserva, you rest assured that the wine has spent at least one year in oak (as well as two in bottle). Good examples of Rioja Reserva are made by CVNE as well as Bodegas Faustino.

 

 
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Knowing how a barrel is made helps understanding why the oak changes the wine the way it does.

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Oak barrels are made of planks of wood bent into place over an open fire - a process called ‘toasting’. Oaky flavours come from the wood itself.

The size of the barrel and for how long the toasting goes on are crucial: the smaller the barrel and the longer it has been toasted for, the oakier the wine.

The other element that defines the intensity of the oaking is the type of oak used. French oak is renowned for imparting flavours in a more subtle way than the other main types. American Oak instead adds a lot of aromas and taste, making the wine more spicy. Finally, Hungarian oak is somewhere in between.

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The ‘barrique’ is the most common barrel size containing 300 bottles. The longer the barrels are used for, the less the wine has the classic oaky flavour. After 4 years the flavour the barrels can impart is minimal.

 

 

 

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