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New Oak vs Old Oak in wine

Another common topic when attending a wine tasting is oak. You’ll find it woven through most wine presentations in different places. Commonly you will hear wine experts talking about:

  • New oak barrels
  • Old oak barrels

Like “What are Tannins in Wine?” we have found many people are happy to smile politely, but may not really understand what the difference is. This article will give you a quick rundown on what oak is and the effect the age may have on wine:

Can you pick the new oak in this image at Ocean Eight?

Ageing wine in Oak

Firstly a quick rundown on ageing wine in Oak:

  • A lot of good quality wines are aged in French Oak barrels, this is what we will be discussing today. The top 20+ most expensive wines in the world use oak
  • There are other techniques, generally used on cheaper wines including oak staves (putting wood planks into the wine), wood chips and oak essence (yuck)
  • Ageing wine in French oak barrels:
    • Adds flavour compounds including vanilla, smoke, coconut and clove
    • Allows the wine to breathe very slightly, making it smoother and less astringent
    • Provides environment for Malolactic fermentation, which makes the wine taste creamier

That’s a bit of background, now the difference between new and old oak is below.

New Oak vs Old Oak

Like a teabag, the more times you use a French oak barrel, the less flavour it imparts, so:

  • The first time you use a barrel it imparts the most flavour
  • The second time you use a barrel it imparts a lot less flavour
  • The third time you use a barrel it imparts hardly any flavour
  • 4+ times it imparts pretty much no flavour

So the more new oak used the more ‘oaky’ the wine will be.

The oak barrel will always allow the wine to breathe so will still have that benefit of making the wine smoother

Tasting Chardonnay straight out of a new French oak barrel at Moorooduc Estate

New Oak

You may have also heard terms like 20% new French oak (for example), this means that 20% of the wine has been aged in new oak and the other 80% was probably aged in old oak (or possibly another non-oak vessel e.g. steel tank)

New oak is quite strong so stands up better to ‘bigger wines’, a guide below:

  • Traditional Australian Shiraz from the Barossa could be 80-100% new French Oak
  • An Australian Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula might be 20-50% new Oak
  • An Australian Chardonnay may also be 20-50% new oak

Old oak

Is better for wines that are a little more delicate. It is perfect for these wines as it still allows the wines to breathe, but doesn’t overpower the wine with oak flavour.

  • Pinot Gris from Yarra Valley might be 100% old oak barrel
  • Australian Sauvignon Blanc might be 20% old oak barrel and the rest in tank

Kathleen Quealy conducting a tasting in front of a wall of Oak at her winery

Oak Flavours

What’s the attraction to using new oak, when oak of any age provides oxygen transfer to help mature and soften wine? There are some common flavours that many winemakers seek to create the wine they want to make.

  • Wood – Seems a bit on the nose, but sawdust, pencil and cedar are common flavour components
  • Spice – Cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg are big enhancers to red wines
  • Nut – Macadamia, hazelnut and coconut flavours are sought after, especially in making a well-rounded Chardonnay.

So there is your guide to the difference between new and old oak ageing. Any questions let us know below

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Adam Nicholls
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Adam Nicholls

Director at Wine Compass
Adam founded Wine Compass in 2013 after deciding to combine his love of wine & wine tours with his background in digital marketing. He loves exploring wine regions with his wife and daughters in his spare time
Adam Nicholls
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