The Multiple Influences of Oak on the Profile of Wine

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

What makes an individual wine unique from another? Why does a Chardonnay from one country differ so greatly from another? Why does one winemaker’s Chardonnay differ so greatly from his neighbor’s a few miles away?

There are three principal (and many minor) factors that influence a wine in its final state: vintage, terroir and oak. In prior columns I’ve explored the first two factors; let’s now focus on the third.

Winemakers have many choices for the vessels used in producing wine. Traditionally oak has been the vessel of choice, especially for red wines. However, there is a growing preference for stainless steel tanks and concrete eggs. This week I’ll focus on oak.

Oak adds complexity to a wine; it also adds unique aromas and flavors. Oak wood naturally has a vanilla-like aroma and a tannic taste. Both of these are considered by many to be critical in the overall style of white and red wines. The vanilla hints add complexity to the wine flavors, while the natural tannins in the wood aid in softening the harshness of wines as they age.

Winemakers have many choices in oaking that enable them to stylize their wines to their unique preferences. Light oaking adds subtlety while heavier oaking adds additional structure and complexity. Your preference for a style of wine is significantly influenced by the winemaker’s use of oak. If you taste a barrel-fermented and aged Chardonnay next to one produced using stainless steel, the difference will be obvious and may influence your buying decisions.

Winemakers have many choices to impart an oaky character to their wines during barrel aging. Let’s briefly explore five:

  1. The origin of the oak trees. French oak trees are the dominant wood used, followed closely by American oak trees. French oak has a tighter grain. The tighter the grain the less absorption by the wood and therefore less flavor is imparted. This is one reason why French wines (and other wines using French barrels) are considered more subtle than American wines.
  2. The “toast” level of the barrel. The art of barrel making (coopering) is dependent on curving the barrel slats (staves) over an open fire to form the familiar shape of the barrel. Depending on how long they are toasted, the flavors imparted will range from vanilla and mild smokiness to caramelized and more dominant smokiness and tannins. The winemaker decides the style he desires and purchases barrels accordingly.
  3. The size of the barrel. This one is counterintuitive. The larger the barrel the less oak is absorbed due to the volume of wine in the barrel. The smaller the barrel the more surface area there is to be absorbed by less volume of wine. Bottom line: aging in smaller barrels imparts more oak flavor.
  4. The age of the barrel. New, virgin, barrels leech higher levels of oak than older, previously used barrels that have already given their best effort. Winemakers seeking heavier oakiness will only use new barrels (translation: Cabernet Sauvignon). Others will mix new and old barrels or use old barrels exclusively (translation: many Chardonnays). In some cases, economics dictate. New barrels can cost from $900 to $2,000 each versus. $200 for older ones.
  5. The length of time wine ages in the barrel. The most influence by the individual winemaker on the final product comes at this stage. The longer wine matures in the barrel the more obvious the oak. This is when the subtlety, or lack thereof, is determined. However, in France, Italy and Spain the time in barrel is governed by law.

Each of the steps in producing a fine wine is critical to the final product offered in your local wine shop. The impact of oak is not always understood or appreciated. But if you look for the influence of oak, you’ll begin to appreciate the subtleties of individual winemakers’ efforts and whether they meet your preferences in wine.

NB: This week’s column is a reprise of an earlier composition.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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