The Ultimate Taste Test: Oaked vs. Unoaked Wines

From grape to glass, the identity of wine is ever shifting. So many elements can influence the body and finish of fine wine. We’re talking growing and harvest conditions, winemaking techniques, fermentation, maturation, bottling, and wine storage. All these factors play a crucial role in developing a scintillating vintage.

Oaked and unoaked wines have distinct qualities that clearly define their rightful place in the hearts, palates, and wine cellars of wine aficionados and collectors.

Into the Wood: The History of Oaked Wine

The oenological use of oak barrels was initially a matter of convenience, not taste. During the time of the early Egyptians and Ancient Romans, clay amphora was the vessel of choice when storing, transporting, and serving wine. While pushing northward into Europe, however, the Romans found it more and more difficult to continue moving vino via these highly breakable clay vessels.

Eventually, they chanced upon the Ancient Mesopotamians who used palm wood barrels to transport their tipples. The Ancient Romans tried to follow suit, but found it difficult to create barrels using the extremely hardy palm wood. After experimenting on different wood styles, they settled on using oak instead. Oak is known for its tight grains, which make the wood incredibly strong and waterproof.

Vintners also discovered that using oak to store wine allowed the tipple to take on concentrated aroma compounds. The interaction between the wine and the oak’s phenols adds secondary flavors to the wine. We’re talking hints of vanilla, caramel, spice, butter, toast, and tobacco smoke. The wood’s porous nature also encourages oxygenation and evaporation, thereby concentrating the wine’s flavors without spoiling the vintage.

The oak barrel has truly gone a long way. From being just another vessel for wine storage, it has become a staple in wineries worldwide.

The Naked Truth: Understanding Unoaked Wine

While oak aging can bring complexity and depth to a tipple, too much of this process can also rob the wine of its natural fruit flavors. To maintain the vino’s fruity undertones, some winemakers opt to age their vinos in stainless steel vessels rather than oak barrels. The resulting wine is called unoaked or unwooded wine, with alternative monikers like ‘Naked,’ ‘Virgin,’ and ‘Silver.’

Since stainless steel containers do not impart flavor, unoaked wines are allowed to express the pure and delicate flavor and aromatics of grapes. In general, unoaked wines are typically fruitier than their barrel-aged counterparts. This makes them ideal as dessert or table wines. Some of the most common ‘naked’ varietals you’ll find today include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling.

A Side by Side Look: Oaked Vs. Unoaked

Chardonnay. What a lot of wine drinkers don’t know about Chardonnay is that on its own, the wine tends to be quite ‘neutral’ on the palate. Much of its flavors are actually derived from its terroir and aging conditions. When oaked, this wine develops a lush and luxuriant mouthfeel. Notes of vanilla, butterscotch, nuts, spice, toast, and caramel add sumptuousness to this drink. If over-oaked, however, the wine turns into a potent butter bomb—as demonstrated by a number of Chardonnay producers in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

Now, when left unoaked, Chardonnay is an unabashed exhibition of the varietal’s fruit character. We’re talking underpinnings and aromas of apple, lemon, pineapple, and other citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Generally speaking, unoaked Chardonnays tend to be on the steely and crisp side of the wine flavor spectrum.

Sauvignon Blanc. Here’s a word of warning. It’s quite difficult to find oaked Sauvignon Blanc. It’s out there, but very few wineries choose to age this wine in oak. When they do, the wines are often released as ‘exclusive’ lines. Taste-wise, oaked Sauvignon Blanc is actually pretty sumptuous. After spending some time in an oak barrel, the wine takes on some of the delectable and creamy properties of melted butter, crème brûlée, and lemon curd. Its finish becomes extra-rich and velvety. If you’re looking at a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, then you can also expect tinges of lemon zest to add liveliness to the palate.

Now, the unoaked version of the varietal is the one that most wine lovers are familiar with. Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc is fresh, vibrant, crisp, and racy. Think gorgeous acidity and notes of gooseberry, lime, and grapefruit.

Merlot. Considered an introductory drink for novice wine drinkers, Merlot is a soft and flavorful varietal. It features a wide array of black and red fruit flavors, like cherries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, plums, and cassis. A spot of oak aging can further punctuate the wine’s layers of flavors. Meshing notes of tobacco smoke, earth, leather, and vanilla to Merlot’s fruit-forward flavor profile.

In the case of unoaked Merlot, the classic dark fruit flavors of this varietal are kept on full display. The vintages can taste jammy, underscored by hints of plum and black cherries. Compared to their oaked cousins, the naked Merlot also contain less intense tannins with lower acidity. It’s an even friendlier approach to an already amiable wine.