Oaked vs. Unoaked Wines: What Is the Difference

From a single acorn grows the mighty oak. 

The symbolism of the oak tree is huge: it’s used to show that great things can come from humble beginnings, it’s a symbol of strength, morale, resistance and knowledge, and thanks to its size and longevity, it’s the wood of choice when it comes to nobility.

Traditionally, wine was aged in clay amphorae. This method had been working for centuries and was very much of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought. Everyone was happy, everyone enjoyed the buzz that amphorae aged wines gave them and no one saw any reason to change. No one that is until the Romans came along. As they marched to colonisation, they not only took with them food and weapons, but wine, and lots of it. These traditional clay amphorae began to be a problem. They were heavy, unwieldy, difficult to transport and easy to break. Not transporting the wine wasn’t an option, so what was a good emperor to do? 

A solution had to be found. Why not make a barrel out of wood? And why not make this barrel out of oak? After all, it was easy to shape, was available in forests all over Europe, far lighter and safer to transport and had the added benefit of being watertight. In Roman terms, it was a no brainer. Oak was the way forward. The acorn had become the oak. 

What Are Oaked Wines?

Thus “oaked wines” have been around since the first millennia. While their initial purpose was practical, today oak barrels have a very different usage. While transporting wine in optimum measures is still important even in the 21st century, we like to think that we have advanced a bit from Roman times!

Oaked wines are wines that have been aged in oak barrels. The oak influences the taste of the wine inside, adding body, flavour and aromas such as vanilla, spice, tobacco and smoke. Thus an “unoaked wine” wouldn’t have any of these things. The broad spectrum of taste that ageing in oak offers is something winemakers adore – this is like a palette of paint for an artist. The longer the wine stays in the barrel, the more complex the body, although investors beware. Wine that has stayed too long in an oak barrel is as undrinkable as vinegar. Additionally, you can play around with the amount of oxygen before sealing (this is what the French call “élevage”), which will help “civilise and refine the wine’s structure”, according to François Mitjavile, winemaker-proprietor of St-Emilion’s Tertre-Rôteboeuf. All these elements contribute to the unique taste of the wine, and the reputation of the estate. 

But at almost €1,000 per barrel, ageing in new barrels isn’t always an option. So what’s a poor winemaker to do?

There is the option of reusing a barrel. And in this age of recycling, why not? Well, because reusing a barrel leads to diminished flavours, that’s why not. The oak imparts its tastes for three years which means winemakers must replace barrels after every three vintages to make sure the wine flavour stays consistent. 

Unoaked wines

However, there is one more option. Enter ageing your wine in stainless steel vats. This will result in a lighter-bodied wine than an oaked wine, with more fresh fruit flavours and fewer notes than those which are traditionally associated with full bodied wines. The argument for unoaked wine is that the sharp minerality and earthiness is given space, characteristics which can be masked by the natural flavours of oaked wine. 

Which Wines Are Oaked?

It doesn’t take a genius then to work out that oaked wines are best suited to red wines. There is one notable white exception but we’ll get to that below. 

Oaked Red Wine

It could be summarised that oak in wine is much like salt in cooking. Essential to the overall flavour, but too much can be a bad thing. As with a dish that has been overseasoned, an over-oaked wine is undrinkable. 

So how best to understand the impact that oak has on red wines? Our advice is to reach for a Rioja. This wine region in Spain is known for producing great Tempranillos and has their oak ageing almost perfect. The nuances of oak-aged red wines that come from Rioja are important as by law the amount of time the wine has spent in barrel is required by law to be on the label. Furthermore, Rioja’s delicious dark cherry and ripe plum characters and cranberry fresh finish are the hallmarks of this region. 

Rioja’s labelling system really sets them.  When Rioja is young and spends little time in oak at all the wines have the classification of Cosecha Rioja – you can easily identify these bottles because there will be a small green square on the back of the bottle. In these wines, you’ll experience the unadulterated flavours of Tempranillo – bright red fruit and high acidity – which may taste “fresh.”

But as the wine starts to spend a bit more time in the barrel, it moves up the scale from Cosecha to Crianza (to be a Crianza it actually must spend at least a year by law in the barrel). From then you graduate to Riserva (a dark red label), equalling three years ageing (one in oak and two in bottle for red). The final (and most expensive) stage is Gran Riserva, which means wine is aged for five years overall, at least two of which must be in new oak barrels. 

Oaked Chardonnay

Now comes the white. As mentioned higher up, oaked wines tend to be red. White wines, served at a cooler temperature, flourish with the lighter body and fruitier taste that comes with unoaked wines. However, there are a few very notable exceptions.

Which White Wines are Usually Oaked?

One white immediately springs to mind: Chardonnay. The creamy texture of Chardonnay lends itself very well to oak ageing. As one of the most malleable white wine grapes, winemakers can play around with the tastes of their Chardonnay, giving it a unique flavour stamp that is harder to acquire with other grapes.

In the case of an unoaked Chardonnay, it may present itself with more pear and apple notes and crisper acidity. An oaked Chardonnay will be rich in flavour and body and will take on notes of vanilla, butter and even caramel from the oak barrel. Additionally, unoaked Chardonnays are not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, versus almost 100% of oaked versions. But unless you are a wine expert, how would you know if your Chardonnay is oaked or unoaked.

White Riojas are also aged in oak much the same way as for the red (although white never spends more than six months in the barrel). 

How to Tell If a Wine Is Oaked?

In a nutshell, oak affects the wine in three ways:

  1. It adds body and flavour, such as aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke and tobacco.
  2. It allows a more gradual intake of oxygen, ergo making a smoother and less astringent wine.
  3. It provides the right environment for particular metabolic reactions to take place (such as malolactic fermentation), which makes the wine taste creamier.

Winemakers have a vast choice when it comes to oak aging, and can add their signature style with various factors. The choice of barrel is incredibly important and various criteria are at play when it comes to choosing the ideal barrel for the ideal reflection of character. These can include: 

  • The country the oak is from
  • Regional variations across different forests
  • How old is the oak?
  • How was the oak dried?
  • How was the oak toasted?
  • Has the barrel been used before?
  • If yes, how long for? 
  • What is the grain of the oak?

If you want to be proficient in wine tasting continue reading our guide on wine flavors.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *