Oak influence on white wine

Published by Sally on August 10, 2009

This article first appeared in Hampshire View, March 2009.

Oak comes in many forms for winemaking, and the main influence of new oak is either to add a bit of vanilla or bacon-fat toasty flavour at the everyday end of the market, or to add structure and texture at the top end, as well as adding, usually a better quality, of vanilla toasty flavour.

Large oak cask

Large oak cask

Old oak barrels, both smaller and larger, don’t have so much of a flavour addition, but do soften the angles and edges of a wine, creating a softer profile. This can be a good thing in a mid-priced red, and mid-to-top quality white, which have some complexity, but wouldn’t necessarily benefit a crunchy young red or white where the vibrancy and punchiness of primary fruit flavours provide the core of the wine’s being.

The use of oak is a more obvious divider of preference with white wines, when it is new and therefore flavour-imparting.  Unoaked wines are easier aperitif wines, they tend to be ‘simpler’, more fruit focused, and indeed some grape varieties, such as riesling, most sauvignon blanc, muscadet, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, really do best without any oak influence at all.  It simply detracts from those juicy, fresh-fruit flavours, and palate-refreshing acidity. But some people love the oaky flavour even for an aperitif.

Wines matured, and sometimes fermented in oak, especially oak barrels, are usually better food wines.  The thing is, flavour and occasion are inextricably entwined, so whilst an unoaked white will made a delicious aperitif, it may not have the weight and structure to stand its own with food.

Barrel cellar

Barrel cellar

Other grape varieties pair well with oak, which gives a whole new taste and flavour experience. The recommendations below are oaked and unoaked chardonnays, all from France.  They’re all delicious, and a comparative tasting can be fun. 

I’m keeping all these suggested wines as chardonnay to eliminate marked flavour differences from different grape varieties. Also quite a few people say they don’t like chardonnay, but quizzing often reveals a dislike of oak, so this could be a good way to find out whether the poor grape variety is being maligned, or if oak is really the culprit. You decide.

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