Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: July 13, 2023

The Difference Between Oaked And Unoaked Wine

The Difference Between Oaked And Unoaked Wine

We all love a glass of wine. Either it comes with a good dinner or meal, or even for special occasions and celebrations. Admittedly, we can't enjoy all of them, but there are enough different types of wine to content a lot of people: from the finest white wine to the darkest red wine, the range is vast, and everyone can find the perfect taste for himself. But did you know that some wines are maturing and fermenting differently from other, some being in oak barrels and others being unoaked? But what is the difference between oaked and unoaked wine? Does it make a lot of difference? Is the taste different? Why would you use oak for?

This article aims to answer these questions!

What Is Oaked Wine

Historically, palm trees were first used to store wine but palm being a very tough type of wood, it wasn't the best suited to make barrels. After testing multiple trees, oak was the best fit for the job, and it has been the best kind of tree since the Romans started using it in the antiquity. It then spread across Europe and the world.

Nowadays, the white oak (Quercus Alba) is mostly used in America, thanks to its fast growth, wider grain, and lower wood tannins. The trend is changing in Oregon where a different type of white oak (Quercus Garryana) is starting to gain usage due to its similarities to the European oak.

Before cutting the hardwood, it takes around 100 years before it is in ideal condition: the tree will mature slowly and develop a tighter grain which is what winemakers are looking for. One tree provides enough wood for two 225-liter barrels.

The oak types are coming from all over the world including America, France and surprisingly, Hungary which has a long history with wine as well. The funny thing is the French wines were mostly stored in Hungarian oak barrels before World War I, and since these two countries were at war, France had to develop and research which kind of French oak would be the best fitted to replace the Hungarian trees that they were not able to acquire any more.

History apart, winemakers don't only use oak barrels, they also use oak chips that they put into the barrels to add more taste to the wine. Some are even using stainless steel casks and only putting oak chips into the barrels to add the flavor to the wine.

Oak is used in winemaking to modify the wine during its fermentation or maturation. As the oak barrels are airtight, the exposure to oxygen is shallow, and the wine can evaporate in some varying quantities, at an average rate of 10 % on a 225-liter barrel in a single year.

Seeing that you lose wine every year because of evaporation, why would you use an oak barrel to store your wine?

There are multiples reasons why we use oak barrels. The first one is for the taste of the wine. Depending on which kind of oak you use, you can modify the flavor of the wine with the phenols within the wood. These phenols (the chemicals affecting the taste, the color and mouthfeel of wine) will interact with the wine and produce vanilla type flavors, adding sweetness to wine. Depending on the kind of oak involved, it will interact with the tannin levels of the wine and possibly make it drier to drink. The oak will also protect the wine against oxidation and reduction. This will protect you as well from tasting corked wine which can be disgusting. It may happen, but this is very uncommon.

Depending on the oak type and the type of grapes used to produce the wine, you can feel different flavors that will derive from the oak used to ferment or mature the wine: it ranges from caramel, cream, smoke, vanilla, and even spice.

For example, a Chardonnay will have a very distinct flavor from the fermentation in oak which will include coconut and cinnamon. This goes for white wines per example. For red wines, you can taste mocha or toffee depending on the "toastiness" of the barrel.

Fermenting wines into oak also affects the color and the general aspect of the wine. If a white wine is oaked, it will tend to be yellower and look silkier than an unoaked wine.

You have to remind as well that the flavor, the color, and all the other characteristics of wine are related to one person: the winemaker.

He is the only one that will determine which grapes he wants to use, which oak type he will use to store the wine and most importantly, how long he will leave the wine in the barrels to mature and ferment. Most of the time, the flavoring of the oak will interact within the first few months with the wine. It all relies on the winemaker. For example, a Pinot noir will spend less than a year in a barrel whereas a Rioja may spend 10 or more years in barrels.

So as you can see here, the oak has multiple purposes for the wine, its maturation, and fermentation. It is a useful tool that winemakers don't necessarily use anymore as some wines are nowadays called "unoaked."

What Is Unoaked Wine?

Some winemakers want to create something special, something unique that won't have any influence from the oak and so they decided to establish unoaked wine. Making unoaked wine​​​ has multiple advantages for the customer and the winemaker.

Unoaked wine is wine matured in stainless steel barrels instead of oak barrels. What changes the most will be analyzed further but you have to know that the most significant difference you will see at first is the price. Because a wooden barrel is way more expensive than a stainless steel barrel, an unoaked one is simply cheaper than oaked wine.

Depending on where the wine is originating, you would also feel a difference. Some European countries, like France, don't use stainless steel barrels. Some countries also use some oak trees that are neutral, and that doesn't add flavors.

In a way, unoaked wine is easier to produce than oaked wine since the winemakers don't have to put as much effort into finding and creating the perfect balance for their wine. As stated before, this is one of the reasons why unoaked wine is mostly cheaper than oaked wine. But when you are indeed a wine "aficionado," do you really care about the price? What you should care the most is what you want!

So, What Is The Difference?

The taste will be different. You will feel more fresh fruit flavors, and the wine will be lighter bodied. An unoaked wine will also have fewer aromas such as vanilla or honey as it is the wood that is interacting with the wine that makes all these flavors appear. Drinking an unoaked wine will feel more "natural" as it is the direct taste of the grapes and the fruits that you will feel and nothing more. This is why unoaked wine is sometimes branded as "Naked," "Stainless" or "Pure." With an unoaked wine, you will feel more acidity than in an oaked.

In a general manner, unoaked wine will feel different than the oaked wine on one important point: since there are no additions of oak flavors, unoaked wine will feel drier than oaked wine. The mouthfeel will be more creamy-like than unoaked wines.

The wines that are mass-produced like some Californian wines are sometimes "over-oaked" so if you don't like it this way, try to avoid them. Other than that, they have their flavor that may taste perfect to anyone else!

This rule of avoiding "over-oaked," you have to be careful to some wines, and you have to know that some wines will age differently and the taste will change as stated before. It all depends on what you want to buy after all and how much you want to spend too! Most people drink wine when they have a good meal or dinner, and you have to choose carefully what you want to drink when you eat.

Some wines will also feel different on another point, the percentage of alcohol. Some wine will feel stronger than others because of their maturation technique, and you should be able to feel the difference when you will be drinking some.

As stated before, an unoaked wine will feel different because of its sweetness and may not be the best suit for some meals, whereas oaked wine would feel perfect.

Some brands of white wine like Chardonnay are produced both unoaked and oaked so you can feel and taste the difference by yourself, and then you will know what you prefer because in the end, what really matters is which wine you enjoy best!

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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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