Professionals worden geacht veel te weten over de effecten van het eiken vat op daarin opgevoede wijn. Voor die categorie zal de inhoud van het nu volgende artikel niet opzienbarend zijn. Hout doet wat met wijn. Maar welk hout hoelang welk ras, druivenmengsel of deel daarvan beïnvloedt, bepaalt de wijnmaker, al naar gelang de stijl die hij/zij beoogt. Consumenten weten daar hoogstens oppervlakkig iets van. Vandaar dit verhelderende artikel van Daniel Abelson.

How the oak can make or break your wine

Floral. Earthy. Jammy. Spicy. Citrusy. Herbaceous. There are infinite descriptors that wine professionals love to use when describing the aromas and flavors of a wine. Some sound a bit abstract, but even for beginners, it’s easy enough to grasp the basic meaning of the wine lingo. They are, after all, words that most of us already associate with a certain taste or smell that we’ve experienced before.

But then a word like “oaky” interjects — a word that isn’t part of any young wine drinker’s vocabulary — it complicates everything. We can all confidently recognize a smoky aroma or a hint of strawberries on the tongue, but what exactly does the word “oaky” even mean?


The first time I heard the term being used was at my first “real” wine tasting. I was surrounded by people who were well versed in the language of wine. I sat quietly, listening to the words being thrown out left and right, trying to make sense of them all. Until the word “oaky” was used, I followed along pretty well.

Like many novice wine drinkers, I assumed that older, richer and luscious wines would have the taste of the oak barrel they had aged in and that “oaky” was a sign of elegance. But I learned that there was a significant difference between a wine that smells or tastes of oak and one that is “oaky,” which is actually a flaw in wine.

Just like eating too much food can compromise a sexy figure, the use of too much oak barreling by a winemaker can cause a wine to be rather undesirable. You wouldn’t want to drink a wine that smells like the Home Depot wood department, and you don’t want one that tastes like a two-by-four, either.

Most people associate the woody smells and overpowering tastes of “oaky” wines with chardonnays from California, the most frequently overoaked wines. These wines have acquired a bad reputation for being too “buttery,” like microwave popcorn. They were really popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but as wine drinkers grew more sophisticated, they realized they were drinking oak juice, not a refined wine. In overoaked wines like these, the flavor of the grape is masked, and drinkers are assaulted with aromas of wood chips.


Unfortunately, in an effort to make a wine more appealing to consumers, it’s not uncommon for winemakers to misuse oak often to add flavor to a wine that otherwise isn’t very interesting or palatable. They use the oak to cover bad flavors instead of using it to enhance features in the wine.

But not all wines that have spent time in oak result in such disasters. When the presence of oak is at a harmonious level with the fruit, tannins and acidity of a wine, it can actually play a pretty vital role in your enjoyment of it.

The exact smell and taste of oak can often be difficult to pinpoint, mainly because the use of it can result in a variety of scents and flavors in wine. Knowing the benefits of using oak during the winemaking process can immensely help you better identify what you taste in the wine you’re drinking. Various flavors and aromas like smoke, tobacco or caramel, as well as many baking spices like vanilla, clove, allspice and even chocolate, can be found in wines that have spent time in an oak barrel.

The next thing that is helpful to understand is how the oak and wine interact. Barrels bleed flavors and aromas into wines that modern stainless steel tanks simply just can’t do. The wood allows the wine to breathe, exposing it to low levels of oxygen that improve the aromatics of a wine. Oak also naturally contains tannins, those chemicals found in plants that can be felt on the tongue. Being in contact with the oak barrels enables the wine to absorb these tannins, which translates into texture and structure in a wine.

Two types

There are two main types of oak that are used to make barrels — French and American. How the wine smells, tastes and feels can depend on the type of wood in which it was aged. French oak, the golden child of barrels, is more expensive but more subtle than American oak, which tends to infuse bolder flavors into the wine. Old World wines from European countries like France and Italy tend to age in pricey French oak barrels, while New World wines from California, Argentina, Chile and Australia spend time in American oak. You will sometimes find American oak being used in European countries like Spain and Portugal.

It’s often thought that newer is better, but when it comes to the use of oak during the winemaking process, modern methods of producing wine in stainless steel tanks cannot compete with the characteristics that oak barrels lend to a wine. There’s a reason oak and wine have traditionally gone hand in hand for centuries — they simply work tremendously well together.

Little oak

Good wines that have been aged in oak are tasty enough to stand alone but also can help make food taste better. Just the other day, I enjoyed a few glasses of the smoky, tannin-rich Trapiche Malbec alongside some grilled pork chops. The robust flavors pair well with most barbecue meals and even with red-sauced pasta dishes.

Don’t let the hangover of “oaky” wines keep you away from wines aged in oak barrels. Whether they know it or not, many people actually like a little oak. When used the right way, it can actually be a seductively good thing, in moderation at least.