Wine Terms: Oak
Wine Terms: Oak
Jan 01, 2018

Some wines have flavors of oak.


Have you tasted flavors of vanilla, spice and smoke in wine before?

Oak imparts these flavors into the wine during the winemaking process. It is here that prolonged contact with oak allows it to give its flavors to the wine.


How strong the oak flavors are largely depends on the type of oak used and whether it’s an old or new barrel. New oak imparts stronger flavors. This is because the oak has not been used before and much of the ‘essence’ of the wood still remains.

Old and used oak barrels may impart much less flavor to the wine. It’s presence can be felt in the wine but is more subtle. In this case, it’s used for structure and aging potential, than for flavor.

Whether American oak or French oak is used makes a difference as well. American oak imparts more intense flavors and has sweeter vanilla overtones. French oak is more subtle.

Oak is used during the fermentation and maturation phases. The two phases use oak because it is watertight but still porous enough to allow air into the barrel. This allows for controlled oxidation which helps to ‘soften’ the wine and reduce its tannic qualities.

Because oak barrels are expensive to acquire, oak chips and staves are sometimes used as cheaper alternatives. During the fermentation process for cheaper wines, oak planks are placed in stainless steel vats. Though not fully oaked, the oak chips can still impart some oak flavors to the wine.


Balance between oak and fruit in a wine is important. It is ideal that the oak influence does not overpower the fruit flavors in the wine.

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