After my wife said a wine we were sipping was a “bit oaky,” one of our guests asked how do we know when a wine is “oaky.” Fair question.
Many wines, if not most, experience some interaction with oak — during fermentation and/or storage, long-term aging, for example, so there’s bound to be an effect, mostly and in general, a positive effect. There is continuing discussion about the virtures of various oak and widespread consensus that the best oak comes from France. But where in France? Limousin, Vosges, Allier, or elsewhere in France? Yet, some French producers prefer American oak or oak from Eastern Europe. Those who like American oak prefer Midwestern oak, especially from Minnesota and Wisconsin, though I have had barrel-makers harvest white oak off my own Hoosier property.
Regardless of where the oak originates, producers look for a couple of things — a porousness that allows for minimal evaporation and the character of its tannins. American oak imparts a more powerful flavor than most European oaks, and oak from the southern states is considered too “sappy” or “fruity.” Bottom line, however, is that wine needs oak but how much and what kind depends on the grape variety, the wine producing region, and the style of the producer.
Since, however, most of us are not in the habit of tasting oak, how do we detect it in a wine, knowing that it’s a “bit oaky”? In a white wine, such as Chardonnay (a grape that loves oak), there will be traces of toast or smoke resulting from having been stored in newly “toasted” barrels. There will be a suggestion of wood, not unlike the aroma of newly-sawed lumber. If any of these flavors predominate, the wine can be described as “oaky,” though that flavor is also offset by the fruit flavors of the grapes themselves.
Red wines, like Cabernet and Merlot, and fortified wines like Sherry and Port, also profit from their life with oak, though the higher presence of tannins often diminish the smoky or woody flavors of the oak. Tannins? Well, they work with oak but make their presence known more by sensation than by taste. Tannnins tend to leave a drying effect on the palate, often somewhat bitter. They help preserve a wine but need time to harmonize with the other ingredients, hence the need to “age” red wines somewhat.
So if you detect a suggestion of toast or smoke, you have experienced the oak presence. Many palates prefer a strong oak presence; others, like mine, prefer a subdued oak presence. There is no right or wrong; there is your own taste, your own palate.