Wine 101- Oak Part Four: Toasty Oak and why it's not all good

How Toasting Affects Oak Flavors and Led to The Taste of Modern Wine


We’ve discussed how seasoning of oak affects tannins and the flavors of oak barrels, but that’s only part of the story. The biggest impact on the flavor of the wine can come from the actual manufacture of the barrels. In order to be able to bend the oak staves into a barrel shape, the insides of the staves are heating over a fire. This heat chars the wood and creates complex chemical reactions.

One reaction is akin to the Maillard reaction that causes the browning of meats and vegetables. This reaction creates compounds that add sweetness, as well as flavor, to a wine.  Barrels can be lightly toasted or heavily charred during the manufacturing process, and each increase in the level of toastiness translates into a more assertive flavor in the finished wines.

There has been a lot of discussion over the past two decades regarding the uses of oak, and the specific toast levels ideal for specific wines. This point of contention has been one of the pivotal issues that have separated the traditionalist school of thought from the evolving Modernist camp. What has become apparent, and it has taken two decades simply because these wines generally need significant aging to tame the tannins and toast imparted by these heavily toasted new barrels, is that even after two decades many wines have been, and remain, dreadfully over oaked.

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So winemakers have erred by over-extracting their wines and then putting them in oak barrels to hasten the softening of those tannins. Of course wood barrels have plenty of tannin to contribute to the wine, especially if it is new barrel. In order to moderate the effects of the oak, as far as tannin contribution goes, winemakers have opted for heavily toasted barrels. In general, the heavier the toast, the lower the level of tannins contributed by the barrel. And thus was born the “recipe” for a modern wine, packed with fruit, oak tannins, toasted oak derived flavors, and a winemaker’s imprint while lacking much typicity.Simply put the flavors of the grape, the soil, the style of wine that sets one region’s wine apart from another.

The effects of heavy toasting go far beyond tannins, as the heavy charring can reduce the coconut note American oak imparts in wine. At the same time it increases the effects of the Vanillin in the wood and creates chemicals that recall dried ginger, cloves or allspice, for example, not to mention the actual notes of toast and char present in many wines.

While only the staves of a barrel need to be toasted during manufacturing process, many winemakers now order their barrels with toasted heads. The head is the flat end panels of the barrel. By toasting even this part of the barrel, winemakers truly maximize the affects of their new toasted oak barrels.

While oak barrels are generally associated with the ageing of wine, many producers also choose to barrel ferment their whites, and even some reds. Counter intuitively this process can result in a wine that features a more subtle integration of wood tones.

The yeast cells active in fermentation can not only transform some of the vanillin released by the wood into a non-reactive form, but they can also physically bond to some of the more assertive elements that the wood contributes to the wine.  As these yeast cells die and fall out of suspension, creating the lees of the wine, they take some of those flavoring elements and tannins with them.

It can all be very confusing but you can find a brief breakdown of these flavors below. By helping you to become familiar with the aromas and flavors of the various toast levels commonly used in wine barrel production, this guide can help you find out what you like in a wine.

Spanish wines have made a name for themselves by using American oak, though French oak is gaining ground with each passing vintage.

2000 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Rioja
Lopez de Heredia is one of the most traditional producers in Rioja. They are committed to using American oak for their wines, and in fact, produce their own barrels exclusively from wood grown in the forests of Appalachia. These are wines that are balanced, perfectly integrating the notes contributed by their wood ageing.

2005 Pesquera Crianza Ribera Del Duero
Alejandro Fernandez established Pesquera in 1972 with an eye on becoming the benchmark producer for the region. His firm conviction that American oak is a better partner for Tempranillo has lead him down the path to becoming not only a benchmark for Ribera, but for all of Spain.

Oak derived flavors and aromas.

Heavy Toast contributes caramelized, smoky, burnt and toast flavors

Heavy toast French oak imparts cinnamon, ginger and clove with undertones of crème brulee, bitter cocoa, charcoal and roast coffee character. French oak often develops a very cedary aroma.

Heavy toast American oak imparts a heavy campfire/roasted coffee note with a strong vanilla signature

Heavy toast Hungarian oak impart a heavy vanilla note with spicy, molasses undertones

Medium Plus Toast imparts aromas of honey, roasted nuts, toasted bread, and baking spices. They lack the black spice and char tones of heavy toast yet remain very assertive.

Medium Toast imparts more spicy, woodsy tones to the wine and the effects are perceived more easily on the nose then on the palate.

Medium toast French oak imparts cigar box, cedary, creamy tones to the wine with toasty notes

Medium toast American oak imparts cafe au lait and coconut tones with a strong vanilla signature

Medium toast Hungarian oak imparts a vanilla note with spicy, earthy undertones

Light Toast raw wood, coconut and dill

Light toast French oak imparts notes of vanilla, raw wood shavings and sweet caramel notes

Light toast American oak imparts coconut and dill notes with raw wood tones

Light toast Hungarian oak imparts a light vanilla note with spicy, herbal undertones

Aromas associated with oak

HERBACEOUS: Weedy, Dill, Mown Hay, Menthol, Grass, Tobacco.
WOODY: Cedar, Sawdust, Pencil Shavings, Sappy, Green, Pine, Tar, Resin.
 SPICY: Clove, Cinnamon, Coconut, Vanilla.

Aromas that can develop in oak during the toasting process.

SMOKY: Barbecue, Wood Smoke, Burnt Sugar.
SWEET: Brown sugar, Barbeque Sauce, Maple Syrup, Butterscotch, Molasses, Honey, Toffee, Marshmallow,
CREAMY: Lactic, Butter. Cream
YEASTY: Popcorn, Cookie Dough. Baked Pastry Dough

ROASTED:, Graham Cracker, Toasted Bread, Coffee, Cereal, Caramel
NUTTY: Hazelnut, Walnut, Almond,
SPICY: Nutmeg, Dried Ginger, Cigar Box

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    More good work, Greg. Thanks for the time in pulling this series together on various aspects of oak.

    I have a question, though. What do *you* mean when you use the term 'over-extracted'? I find that the term is over-used, and tends to cover a range of issues many people find with larger, modernist wines.

    My understanding is that extraction is the process of taking the flavor, color and tannin out of the grape skins during maceration when the grape skins are steeped in the grape juice during fermentation.

    So are you talking about too much flavor, too much color, too much tannin (a word for compounds extracted from grape skins and seeds that yield a red wine's color and structure)? Too many solid compounds in the wine (the 'extract')? Too 'concentrated' (though that term might also need more definition)? Too dry and gritty in the mouth? Any of these? All of these? Something else?

    Or is this just shorthand for a dislike of fatter, richer, thicker, Parkerist wines of recent years?

    Oct 22, 2009 at 2:18 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Oh, and I still am hoping for some mini-case studies of how different winemakers in the same region create distinctive signatures for their wines by using oak differently... ;-)

    Oct 22, 2009 at 2:22 PM

  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 158

    Your series on oak has been really instructive-- thanks!

    I'd love to see a follow-up, though. I'm one of those wretches who's developed a wine-headache problem. It started at least 10 years ago, and I noticed it with big reds in particular, or so I thought, as that's what I was mainly drinking. The sulfites theory was still in play then, but I didn't believe it, and of course it's really been debunked since. On the bright side, I started to explore lots of different whites with great success-- I'd always been a riesling fan, and got into them in a big way, as well as French whites (esp Sancerre).

    I started thinking about tannins... and then about OAK. I had a couple of migraine-esque experiences with super-oaky chardonnays (esp. some cheap Aussie plonk-- pressed into my hand at someone's home), while a large quantity of Chianti Classico at another home had no impact on my head.

    I read something somewhere about US vs. Euro oak, and a suspicion that the diffferent genuses might provoke different allergic responses. I then pondered huge tanks of Aussie chard, infused with big teabags full of US oak shavings... as opposed to European wines like my Chianti, aged in very large barrels of well-seasoned oak, and thereby getting much less exposure to the wood, which isn't necessarily fresh wood, either.

    I find I do pretty well these days if I stay away from oaked whites, and stick to lighter US reds and older-styled European reds. Haven't tried a really big Italian red lately, though-- I'm wondering if some of the super Tuscans, with their US-leaning style, would give me the icepick-through-the-eyebrow feeling. I can report that I had a couple of sherry-glasses of medium-sweet sherry on Sunday, and still have the remnants of the headache today (Thursday). That's a mighty oaky wine, and I think it did me in.

    ANYWAY-- the point of these musings is that I'd like to see some exploration of OAK, or poorly-handled oak, as the culprit in a lot of wine-induced headaches. Meanwhile, my own "experiments" have led me to some lovely unoaked whites, lightly-oaked reds, and (forgive me, fellow wine fanciers!) the glory of gin. ;-)

    Oct 22, 2009 at 5:14 PM

  • Snooth User: photojoy
    258665 1

    So when I taste a wine that imparts butterscotch in the finish, that relates to the oak "seasoning"? Rombauer comes to mind.

    Oct 22, 2009 at 5:39 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Dmcker, thanks very much! My over-extracted I mean two things. The first is the more traditional use of the term, the physical extraction. The classic example of this is a winemaker using too much press wine in the final blend. I know someone who presses the hell out of his wines and adds every drop to the finished wine, thick, black, tannic as hell wine.

    The other, and more problematic example to use, is the over use of cold soaking and enzyme extraction to leach out color, dry extract and polyphenols. Those wines can come out inky, murky and out of balance as well.

    Cold soaking, like barrel aging, doesn't have a linear effect on wine but an effect that peaks and then fades as compounds polymerize and fall out of suspension. It's difficult to judge the effects of cold soaking but the "solution" to extracting alot out of the skins yet leaving behind much of the tannins tis to throw the wine in new barrels. Naturally.

    Courgette. It just may be the differing histamine levels found in the various grape varieties that is causing you trouble.

    You can try taking an anti-histamine before drinking those wines and see if that helps.

    I have read that aging in oak hastens the formation of amines, histamine being only one. I'll see if I can find out more about this subject.

    Photojoy, I would say you are correct!

    Oct 22, 2009 at 7:13 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    Thanks for your great work and still need time to digest before I can ask some questions.

    Oct 22, 2009 at 8:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Marty N
    142701 11

    Spells out the oak story very well, especially the aromatics that may emanate from the oak and not intrinsically from the wine. Thanks again and keep these super-informative articles coming.

    Oct 22, 2009 at 9:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Arwan
    215343 131

    Now, that's a lesson worth learning!
    Thank you very much for the time and fine documentation, and for the great topic you covered so well!

    Oct 23, 2009 at 5:51 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Thanks everybody!
    I really appreciate the kind words

    Oct 23, 2009 at 11:57 AM

  • Snooth User: schellbe
    Hand of Snooth
    247770 225


    Don't expect to find one explanation to wine allergies. After years of red wine and cheese tastings, I have had to give them up. My mouth and tongue start to burn when I mix these, especially Italian cheeses and big reds. My allergist got scared and prescribed an epi-pen, but has since decided (since I have no other reactions) to have me take a non-sedating antihistmaine before mixing wine and cheese.

    I have never had a wine headache and can mix wine with other foods without problems. But whatever the cause, be aware that red wine is loaded with histamine.

    Oct 24, 2009 at 9:29 AM

  • I really enjoyed this article series! It was extremely helpful and informative. After reading this I've concluded that I really like reds that have spent time in French oak - I love the cedar experience. Aside from tasting every cab in the world, how can you find out which ones have been aged using French oak? I have not noticed that piece of information on any of the bottles.

    Thanks again Greg - great writing!

    Nov 04, 2009 at 2:58 PM

  • Courgette-- Just in case you have not explored these ideas regarding "wine headaches": Have you noticed any difference in the incidence of your headaches if you drink organically produced wine, or wine that has been produced using the principles of bio-dyanmics? Sometimes fertilizers, pesticides, or other compounds used on fruits while they are growing can cause chemical allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to them. There are several vineyards these days that are growing their grapes biodynamically. Also, don't overlook what may be happening if you combine your wine drinking with certain foods; it is possible that certain foods combined with wine might trigger headaches or other allergic reactions. Ambyn is one winery that produces all it wines using biodynamics. The Bien Nacido vineyards in Paso Robles (used by many wineries to grow their grapes) also has some of its specific vineyard plots dedicated to only the strictest biodynamic farming methods. Biodynamic methods are prescribed and regulated by State Law and don't allow for the fudging that has creeped into some of the laws regulating what can be labeled as "organic". I discovered I'm allergic to MSG, but had no idea all the products that contain the stuff but do not include it on the label. For example, "natural flavor" can, and usually does include MSG. It's even used to produce some vaccines!

    Nov 19, 2009 at 9:29 PM

  • great article.
    I am fermenting at the moment, making a Cab. S. blend with Shiraz. I like to get advise from you. Should I use heavy or medium toasted oak for this blend?

    Nov 01, 2016 at 3:36 AM


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