If you’re a big white wine drinker, you’ve probably seen the words “oaked” and “unoaked” (or steel-aged) on a bottle of your wine, and it may have been a bottle of Chardonnay. It probably hasn’t stopped you from buying said bottle but maybe you’ve been wondering what it means.
The short answer: Basically, the similar terms refer to the aging process in which the wine is aged in oak or steel barrels. It’s the fermentation process that is essential to wine, and therefore, whichever barrel the wine is fermented in will actually affect the flavor.
The attribute most affected by the different aging processes is in the flavor profile, so you’ll see “oaky” as a description for the flavor profile of a wine. A very serious majority of wines, both red and white, are kept in oak barrels but you’ll notice more of that oaky flavor in ones that are fermented longer in their oak barrels, rather than being transferred to a steel barrel.
The oak can generally impart a deeper color into the wine- for instance, an oaky Chardonnay will have a more golden color than a steel-aged Chardonnay which will be whiter. You may also notice that oaked white wines have more of a vanilla note in their flavor profile, and that is because of the compound known as vanillin which lives inside the oak itself.
Traditionalists will tell you than an unoaked Chardonnay isn’t worth drinking but innovation today is proving otherwise. Sure, the oak gives you that rich, buttery taste that you’re used to, but an unoaked bottle of wine can have that refreshing crispness and tart tastes that you may not find otherwise.
Try it out for yourself. Find a varietal that is labeled as oaked and unoaked (hint: Chardonnay) and look for the differences among all of your sense. Notice how they taste, look, and smell different, and see if you prefer one over the other!
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