Wine and oak have a long history together that started two millennia ago when winemakers began using oak barrels and casks for fermenting and aging wine.
One reason winemakers still use oak today is the strong wood allows oak barrels (and casks) to safely hold large amounts of wine.
But a more important reason is that contact with oak can enhance wine by imparting flavors and complexity. Indeed, some wines are advertised as oak-aged, and some are praised for having oak flavors.
Decisions on oak
Although the use of oak is common, winemakers face many decisions about it. Key choices are whether or not to use oak barrels and, if so, what oak species to use, because different species have different impacts on wines. The most common choices for U.S. winemakers are barrels made from American or French oak.
Winemakers also must decide whether to use barrels that are new, used or a combination of both. New and lightly used oak barrels impart stronger oak flavors and greater complexity than barrels that have been used several times.
Another decision is the size of barrels. Small barrels have greater impacts on wine flavors and complexity, because a higher percentage of the wine is in direct contact with oak.
Also, instead of using oak barrels, winemakers may choose to add oak boards (staves) or wood chips to wine in containers such as stainless steel tanks. These means of adding oak flavors and complexity are much less expensive than barrels.
Of course, a crucial decision is how long to leave the wine in contact with oak. The longer the contact time, the stronger the influence of oak.
Moreover, all of these decisions impact how wines are priced. Oak barrels are expensive (typically $500-1200 apiece) and have limited life spans. And oak aging requires additional expenses for storage and monitoring.
Tasting oak in wine
Being able to taste oak in wine is important to wine lovers, because oak can be a key to enjoying and selecting wine. It is as essential as other core characteristics of wine such as fruit, balance and refinement.
Different kinds of wines differ greatly in their oak flavors. At the extremes, white wines such as Pinot Grigios tend to be unoaked, while red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignons are usually strongly oaked.
The best grape for learning about oak is Chardonnay. Not only do many people find oak easy to taste in Chardonnay, but also both unoaked and oaked Chardonnays are readily available for purchase and comparison.
Unoaked (and Oaked) Chardonnays
Here are my favorite unoaked Chardonnays tasted for this column. Some are listed with an oaked sibling for comparison (the others are best tasted with an oaked Chardonnay from the same wine region).
Columbia Crest 2015 Chardonnay “Unoaked, Grand Estates, Columbia Valley” ($12): This very pleasing, value-priced, unoaked Chard features strength, good balance, appealing taste profile, enjoyable personality and extended length.
A to Z 2015 Chardonnay “Oregon” ($15): Forward on the palate with clean, focused, lean-ish fruit. Excellent balance impresses, along with strong character and a long finish. Quite a buy for its price.
Cave de Lugny 2015 Chardonnay “La Côte Blanche, Mâcon-Villages, France” ($15): This personal favorite among unoaked Chards in its price range beautifully focuses on fruit on the attack and then develops a highly pleasing personality and impressive refinement for the price.
Chamisal 2015 Chardonnay “Stainless, Central Coast” ($18): A step up in unoaked Chardonnays, the Chamisal offers more than its price suggests, being strong on the palate and having its expressive fruit balanced with crisp acidity. Taste alongside its oaked sibling Chamisal 2014 Chardonnay “Edna Valley” ($35). Both available online from the winery.
Lincourt 2015 Chardonnay “Steel, Sta. Rita Hills” ($18): Light in color and on the nose, this unoaked Chard features strength, full body and excellent development in the mouth to yield forward complexity, strong personality and extended length. Pair with its oaked sibling Lincourt 2015 Chardonnay “Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills” ($27). Both available online.
Wrath 2016 Chardonnay “Unoaked, EX, Monterey” ($19): One of the best unoaked Chardonnays I’ve tasted has a forward, highly pleasing personality. Strength and complexity on the nose are followed by fruit, complexity and refinement on the palate. Taste alongside its terrific sibling featuring beautifully melded oak: Wrath 2014 Chardonnay “San Saba Vineyard, Monterey” ($49). The “Unoaked” is available within Arizona; its sibling is available online from the winery.