To Oak or Not To Oak?

wine-barrelsKingston, Ontario is a city rife with culture.  We have an ever growing community of artists, musicians, and innovators all coalescing into a unique epicenter of creativity and progress.  It should come as no surprise that in the Kingston and 1000 Islands region two elements are quite prominent which complement our fair city’s sense of character: Food, and wine.

For over a decade, Bayridge Cask & Keg has catered to countless clients over the years who not only enjoy wine, but enjoy making their own wine.  The store’s proud new owners Bill and Tina indicated that one topic always coming up is the popular question, of whether or not to add oak-chips to wine during the fermentation and aging process. 


Oak Barreling has been a staple of winemaking for over two millennia, first used industriously by the Roman Empire – and it’s fairly safe to say that the Romans really enjoyed their wine.  As time progressed vinters and wine connoisseurs alike noticed that wines barreled in oak took on unique flavors and characteristics which differentiated it from wine barreled in alternative types of wood. 

But does this mean that oaked wine is superior simply because it’s been a component of wineries for over two thousand years?  In order to find out for myself, I decided I would have to visit both sides of this discussion of the ages. 

Now, I’m in no way, shape, or form, a wine expert.  I have sampled my fair share of vintages from around the globe, yet in all honesty, I’m a beer guy.  But this means that what I bring to this discussion is a completely fresh and unbiased palette.

Bill set out for me a pair of reds consisting of St. Emile, which is a delightful blend of Merlot and Cabarnet Franc.  The second type of wine was a famous Italian dry: Amarone.  I sampled both the oaked and unoaked versions of St. Emile as well as, full and half oaked variants of the Amarone.  Both wines were rather young in the aging process.  Here’s a rundown of my experience with each.

St. Emile: (Full Oak)

Distinct smoky character with a sweet, fruity undertone.  I could detect notes of raspberry, which resulted in a full-bodied tasting experience indistinguishable from a fine Niagara vintage.

St. Emile (No Oak)

Plain, almost generic taste with an especially fruity aspect which was much more prominent than the oaked version of the same wine.  Amazingly, it was also far sweeter with a mild tartness that lingered upon the taste buds.  My impression is that this version would need to age far longer than its oaked sibling. 

Amarone: (Full oak)

A dry Smoky undertone that does not dominate the flavour but augments the wine’s overall character resulting in a smooth and rich taste, with a vibrant aroma.  Once again, I could not in all honesty discern this kit wine from a $30 bottle at the LCBO

Amarone: (Half Oak)

The noticeable smoky flavor in this version was far more subtle; almost like an echo of the oaked variant.  The bouquet had a slightly floral element, but again was not as full flavored as the exact same wine with full oak.   I was amazed at how much difference using only half of the provided oak chips makes.  In retrospect, the half-oaked version was gentler in flavour making it a great table wine to pair with fruit and cheese arrangements.

My overall verdict after this especially enjoyable research project, is that in my humble opinion: Oaked wines have a much more authentic and true flavor that is to be expected of a fine wine.  Of course, at the end of the day it is truly a matter of preference, and individual taste.  If you are not sure whether or not to include oak in your home wine making, I strongly suggest you try both!  

In fact, on your next visit to Bayridge Cask & Keg, Bill and Tina will gladly help you select a variety of wines that you can either make at home, or in-store to create a fun and sociable experiment at home, with your guests as the eager guinea pigs at your next dinner party. 

Last modified on Sunday, 14 December 2014 16:58
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 Mike Hector

Mike Hector is a copywriter, and creative professional residing in Kingston Ontario. He is a graduate of St. Lawrence College's Integrated Marketing Communications program, and is an avid writer of various blogs, and also co-hosts a podcast based on gaming culture. Mike enjoys developing his own creative projects, cooking, and all things food and drink.

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