Oak in wine is an interesting topic. It’s not quite as straight-forward as light, medium or heavy oak, even though that’s how it’s often presented to us.
When oak is described as light, medium or heavy, that’s generally referring to the intensity of the oak flavour. However, there are many different types of oak used in winemaking, imparting a range of flavours and affecting more than just the taste.
Type of Oak
Not all oaks are equal. That is to say, different oaks have different qualities. The type of oak is specific to a region, such as French or American oaks. While these regional oaks are mostly used for different types of barrels and barrel-aging, we can still use different types of oaks directly in the wine during winemaking.
At Wine Works we use several types of oaks from different regions, including American, French, and Hungarian oaks.
The region an oak comes from is not the only variable that affects the final wine. There is another factor we still have to consider: toasting.
Toasting the oak caramelizes the natural sugars within the wood. The degree of “toast” provides unique flavours, as seen below:
- Lightly toasted – Coconut, caramel, clove and cinnamon.
- Medium toasted – Honey, caramel, toast, coffee and cocoa.
- Heavy toasted – Espresso, smoke, crème brulee, butterscotch, toffee and molasses.
Let’s Get Nerdy About Oak
Oak’s contribution extends beyond changing the flavour of your wine, by affecting the colour, clarity and even helping to protect your wine from spoilage.
Certain tannins present in the chemical structures of wood, known as ellagitannins, help protect the wine from oxidation and spoilage. During the oak aging process tannins are slowly released from the wood into the wine. With time, these tannins have the benefit of adding stability to the wine’s color and clarity.
Phenols within the wood interact to produce vanilla-type flavours and can give the impression of tea notes or sweetness.
Oak can also enhance the colour of the wine. In a white wine, the longer the wine sits in oak, the darker a yellow it will become, almost mimicking the hue of straw. If the wine is red, colour is not affected as much, but often the longer the wine sits in oak, the darker red it can become.