Ahhh… the oak barrel. While not a requirement of wine making, it’s definitely an image that’s become synonymous with it. Back in the day, (and by “in the day,” I mean the 1600’s) wine was actually sold from the barrel rather than the glass bottles we use today. In modern days, we typically use barrels for the aging process since oak can add specific flavor notes to our wines.
When you’re drinking a glass of wine, the ingredients are simple–Grapes! Aging in oak allows winemakers to play with these flavors a bit. The best known example would be a chardonnay. Have you ever gone to a wine tasting where they have you drink a chardonnay aged in oak verses one aged in wine? The oaked chardonnay will have that more buttery taste that its famed for. You may also taste hints of vanilla or caramel. A chardonnay aged in stainless steel will be more crisp and refreshing.
When it comes to oak, you’re going to find two types primarily used in winemaking–European and American. European oak is primarily from France, but also occasionally Eastern Europe. American oak is mostly from the great state of Missouri. The European variety tends to be denser, which will leave it with less intense oaky flavors. You’ll find it being used a lot with white or lighter reds, since it will allow the wine to absorb the flavor without becoming a full on butter ball. An American oak is going to give more bold flavors.
If you’re like me and needed to be eased into oaked wine, (side note–my spellcheck keeps trying to autocorrect “oaked” to “naked.”) today’s winemakers have you covered. We’re seeing a lot of wines–especially chardonnays–that are aged partially in stainless steel, then in oak. Stainless steel doesn’t add any flavors, so your overall oakiness will be much lighter. My gateway oaked wine is the Madeline’s Chardonnay at Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County.