What is “Oaky” Wine?
When wine sits in an oak barrel over time, it picks up sweet and spicy flavors from the wood. These flavors are considered “oaky.” New oak barrels will add strong flavors to the wine if the wine sits in there long enough. However, every time a barrel is reused (one barrel can be used many times), the sweet flavors become less and less. If used over 4 times, the barrel will be considered “neutral” and not add any flavors to the wine. American oak adds stronger flavors of coconut and vanilla to the wine, where as French oak adds gentler notes. In addition, barrels let in small amounts of air into the vessel over time. The oxygen also adds subtle notes of chocolate and coffee.
How are Barrels Made?
Much of French oak comes from central and northern France, whereas American oak is sourced from the Midwest, Virginia and Appalachia. First, oak trees are carefully cut into staves (wooden strips). Next, coopers arrange the staves very tightly into a rounded barrel shape, placing rings on either end to hold the staves in place. Once complete, coopers will toast the insides of the barrels to whatever level the winemaker indicated. They may choose “lightly toasted” or a heavier toast depending on how they want the wine to age and the flavors they are hoping to impart. The higher the toast level, the stronger some of these flavors and the more “Smokey” a wine may taste.
Winemakers can choose not to age wine in barrels, but may still want the “oaky” taste. In these cases, the winemaker may use oak alternatives to get the sweet and spicy flavors into the wine. One option is to take individual staves of the wood used for barrel-making, and place them inside the wine vat (most often in a stainless steel tank.) Another option could be to add oak chips to the vat. These alternatives are cheaper than purchasing a custom oak barrel, which could cost up to $2,000 each. However, premium wines are more likely to be aged in actual barrels.
Use of Barrels
Many white and delicate red wines, are not aged in oak barrels, because these additional flavors would overpower their freshness and elegance, i.e. fresh Sauvignon Blanc or an ultra light style of Pinot Noir. However, oak is common for most reds that require the oxygen and time to transform the wine into something yummy and magical.
So when someone says a wine tastes “Oaky” this is why!
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