Oak 101: Everything You Need To Know About Oak Aged Wines

Even if you can’t tell a fine cabernet from a pinot noir you’ve heard of oak aged wine. It’s probably the most well-known wine making technique. A tradition that dates back centuries, it involves letting red and some white wines age inside a lightly toasted oak barrel. It sounds simple, but its influence on the taste of wine is anything other than straightforward. Raphael Vineyard Wine Maker Anthony Nappa and Kelsey Cheslock of Sparkling Pointe Vineyards shared the inside scoop on oak aged wine. Go ahead and impress friends with your knowledge at the next wine tasting or harvest festival.

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What is it: At its heart, oak barrels are just a vessel in which to place and store the wine while it ages. Before there were barrels, clay pots were often the receptacle of choice. It was the French that perfected the art of aging wine in oak barrels and it caught on from there.

“It’s a part of French wine culture which has been exported and also a lot of grapes are French grapes which is why people use it,” Nappa said.

image: yaskocreative

Growing grapes are just one part of the wine making process. image: yaskocreative

How is it used: Oak barrels caught on because of the ease in which they could be moved and managed by hand. The 59-gallon barrel is the standard size but winemakers sometimes experiment with different sizes as it impacts the amount of surface area that touches the wine.

“The smaller the barrel the more effect you have,” Nappa said. “You have a quicker flavor, you’re adding flavor into the wine.”

The barrels slowly let oxygen in through the wood, affecting the progression and aging progress of the wine. With sparkling wines oak isn’t used much. At Sparkling Pointe however, a few oak barrels are used for their unique blends such as Winemaker Gilles Martin’s “reserve wine,” or for “dosage,” the small amount of wine used at the end of the secondary fermentation before the wine is ready to drink.

“Sparkling Pointe utilizes new French oak barrels with the Excellence XO Brandy, a double distilled spirit made from grapes and aged up to six years in oak barrels to impart honey and vanilla notes,” Cheslock said.

wine tasting tips

Look for a heavier taste in oak aged wine. image: swalls

How oak affects the wine: Those different notes are the most recognizable way oak affects the wine.

“You’re adding flavor into the wine, adding body to the wine,” Nappa said.

Oak influences the flavors and feel of wine on the palate.

What to look for when you taste: If the wine tastes light and crisp it probably wasn’t oak-aged. Oak is known for giving wine a heaviness with creamy, honey, vanilla notes.