Oaking changes a wine into a completely new thing. It adds flavours and aromas. If you put a wine in oak, you can feel it. So there is a typical flavour of oaked wine. Unoaked however is not ‘a thing’ on its own. Unoaked really means that you taste the pure grape.
"Choose because it costs"
Oaking does not necessarily make a wine better. A barrel costs £250-£600, so oaked wines can cost easily 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.
“For the whites I chose a Rioja Blanco because the grapes have very powerful natural aromas which are a great contrast to the oaked aromas of the Chardonnay from Australia.”
“For the reds I chose an oaked Bordeaux blend and an organic unoaked Montepulciano. The Montepulciano grape has strong flavours, it’s quite ‘rough’ compared to the oaked Bordeaux.”
When spending time in a barrell, wine is exposed to two things: the oak wood and the air. Both of them have a double impact that changes wine.
The oak gives its own aromas to the wine. These are aromas that don't belong to the grape and that the wine wouldn't have otherwise.
The oak releases tannins into the wine. Try suckling on the wooden stirrer you get with coffee. It dries your gums the way wine’s tannins do. Oak wood has loads of them and it passes them on.
Part of the wine evaporates because the barrel is water-tight but not air-tight. In 1 year, up to 10% of the water contained in wine evaporates and seeps out through the wood’s pores.
As it seeps out, air also seeps in and the oxygen transforms the wine. As it happens with everything we leave out in the air for long time, also a wine’s flavours and tannins fade and get softer.
There are three main clues to spot oaked whites: 1. vanilla, nuts or smoke aromas, 2. a deep yellow colour, 3. tannins.
Vanilla, nuts and smoke are the real clue of oaking in whites. A wine’s grape doesn’t have these aromas so they come 100% from the barrel.
Oaked wines have more intense colours. A deep tone of yellow is a good clue of oaking.
Normally white wines don’t have tannins, but oaked ones are different. If you feel your gums drying, for sure the wine is oaked.
The majority of reds are oaked. The clues to spot them from the unoaked ones are two: 1. black pepper, cocoa, and smoke, 2. a deeper and browner tone of red.
Black pepper, cocoa, and smoke are the real clue of oaking in reds. A wine’s grape doesn’t have these aromas so they come 100% from the barrel.
Oaked wines have deeper and browner colours. A deep red, possibly with hints of brick, is a good clue of oaking.
Knowing how a barrel is made helps understanding why the oak changes the wine the way it does.
Barrels are made of planks of wood bent into place on an open fire. This is called ‘toasting’. A wine’s oaky aromas come from either the wood itself or from the toasting.
The toasting is the reason for the aromas of smoke, cocoa, coffee or caramel that oaked wines have. The oak itself passes on the aromas of vanilla, nuts, and woody spices like black pepper and clove.
The size of the barrel and for how long the toasting goes on are crucial: the smaller the barrel and the more toasted it is, the oakier the wine.
The ‘barrique’, the most common barrel size, contains 300 bottles. The longer the barrels are used for, the less oaky the wine. After 3-4 years they become a neutral container and nothing more.