This Is What People Mean When They Say a Wine Is Oaky — And What You Should Look for When Shopping

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

We in the wine business have an unfortunate habit of throwing around our lingo as though everyone will understand it. Get a few of us together with a bottle (or two or four) and we might as well be that teacher from Charlie Brown. In attempts to turn all that womp womp womp into words you’ll not only understand, but also be able to use yourself, here’s a quick explainer — in total laymen’s terms.

We’re at a moment right now when calling a wine oaky isn’t exactly a compliment. The word “too” is sort of implied, and heavily oaked wines, especially white wines like Chardonnay, are about as fashionable as sun-dried tomatoes.

Here’s what it really means for a wine to be oaky, and how to pick one you’ll actually like.

The Taste of Oaky Wines

Honestly, this aversion is understandable. People have been burned so many times by bad oaky wines that they assume that oak on wine = cloying and astringent, with that rancid chocolate cake batter twang you get from too-warm Merlot you choke down crunched in your economy seat on a plane. But saying all oak is bad is like saying that you hate all perfume because you don’t like the smell of the air freshener they use in rest stop bathrooms.

Wine that’s been treated with oak well is like a celebrity in “just” jeans and a T-shirt. The T-shirt’s been tailored, the jeans cost $800, and they’ve just had a professional blowout. There’s nothing “just” about it, but you can’t quite put your finger on why they look so special and you look like a frumpy, disheveled mess in the same outfit.

Put your nose in a glass of Grand Cru red Burgundy, or a high-end Napa Cabernet, and you won’t be thinking “oaky” — you’ll be thinking “mmmm” and “I hope someone else is paying for this.” Really good oak used the right way on wine just smells expensive. It smells like sliding into a leather chair in a steakhouse where the reservation book is still an actual book and they know just how you like your martini. Like the Richard Gere character from Pretty Woman might pop out at any moment and take you on a shopping spree and then run you a bath in a giant hot tub.

The hallmarks of oak influence in wine are aromas and flavors that remind you of baking spices (especially vanilla), baked goods, toasted things, or roasted things. There’s this kind of subtle, powdery, spicy vanilla sheen that envelopes wines treated with expensive oak that’s like a cashmere sweater that hugs you just right.

So how do you avoid the curdled cake batter stuff and get that Richard Gere oak without going bankrupt? Have rich friends! Just kidding.

Shopping for Oaky Wines

If you’re going really inexpensive, like boxed-wine prices, then stay away from oak entirely. It’s just way too hard to do right at this price and quality level. There are exceptions, but unfortunately, I’m not there to hold your hand on every trip to Target (I wish I could though, because who doesn’t love Target?). Words to avoid on shelf talkers and packaging descriptions include: vanilla, spice, coffee, chocolate, toast, roasted, and smoky.

If you’re comfortable in that $12 to $25 range, look for wines that mention subtle, neutral, or used oak. This will give you just a whiff of that expensive oak aroma and flavor without it overwhelming a wine that probably doesn’t have the oomph to stand up to heavy oak treatment.

(Image credit: KL Wines)

A great example of this subtle style is Bishop’s Peak Chardonnay — give it to someone who claims they hate oaky Chardonnay! And the French are masters of just-right oak treatment. This delicious Pinot Noir from Vincent Girardin gives just a hint of luxurious oak to the juicy, delicious cherry, and raspberry flavors.

What’s your take on oak? Are you a staunch old-school Cali Chardonnay lover, trends be damned, or does the word “oaky” send shivers down your spine? Discuss in the comments below!