Definition - What does Oaky mean?

Oaky is a wine tasting term used to describe a wine that presents flavors and characteristics imparted by oak aging. These flavors and aromas vary depending on the grape variety and the type of oak used; they can include: black pepper, butterscotch, caramel, cedar, cinnamon, clove, coconut, cream, dill, honey, mocha, sandalwood, smoke, sweet spices (nutmeg), toast, toffee and vanilla. Oak also affects the texture and tannin levels in a wine. Oaky wines tend to be richer, with more tannic qualities. When a wine is over-oaked, its taste consists mostly of the oak characteristics. True oaky wines are not over-oaked, but they have a perfect balance of fruit and oak flavors, which is why most professionals don’t use the term “oaky”. Instead, they use the specific flavor to describe the wine.

WineFrog explains Oaky

Oaky is a general and vague wine tasting descriptor. Since the characteristics imparted by oak varies depending on the type of oak used, the variety in the barrel and whether or not the oak was toasted, in barrel form or chips, the term “oaky” could mean anything from strong vanilla aromas to smoky flavors.

In general, the term “oaky” means the wine is complex with the tannic structure needed to support the fruit and oak characteristics in a well-balanced, delicious wine. From there, most experts will use more descriptive terminology to define the characteristics of a wine.

There are three types of oak used in winemaking and each has a different effect on the wine:

American Oak
The characteristics given by American oak are strong and sharp; the prominent aroma/flavor is that of vanilla and/or dill, with the other typical oak characteristics coming in a soft second. The tannins imparted by American oak are strong and tough – which is why most winemakers don’t overuse American oak.

French Oak
The characteristics given by French oak are subtle and subdued; the prominent aromas/flavors are smoke, toast, caramel, vanilla or butterscotch. The tannins imparted by French oak are subtle and soft, providing a supporting background to the wine’s prominent characteristics.

Eastern European Oak
Similar to French oak, the characteristics given by Eastern European oak are subtle and subdued, however, the prominent aromas/flavors are nutty rather than smoky.

When you are tasting a wine, and you encounter any combination of the following:

  • Black pepper
  • Butterscotch
  • Caramel
  • Cedar
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Coconut
  • Cream
  • Dill
  • Honey
  • Mocha
  • Sandalwood
  • Smoke
  • Sweet
  • Spices (nutmeg)
  • Toast
  • Toffee
  • Vanilla

The wine is considered “oaky”. The dominant characteristics will tell you which type of oak is used, and the strength will indicate if the wine has been exposed to the oak for a prolonged period of time.

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