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The Impact of Oak and Alcohol

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How Oak and Alcohol Change Wine

Red Wine-Oak-aged, Tannins & high ABV

Red Wine-Oak-aged, Tannins & high ABV

The use of oak and the affects of alcohol have a significant impact on the wine that is ultimately produced. Oak aging has a definitive influence on the taste of wine, as well as the ability to pair the wine with various foods. The amount of alcohol present in a wine has to be carefully gauged so it doesn’t overpower a dish.

The amount of time a wine spends in oak barrels aging, the more the wine will take on the various flavors of the wood. Grapes contain tannins, which are naturally bitter and astringent. Through oak aging, and over a period of time, the tannins become more mellow and softer.


Below is a discussion of the impact of oak and alcohol in various wines.


Oak Barrels
Old Oak Barrels

Old Oak Barrels

The use of oak either French or American, imparts specific aromas and flavors to a wine. The newer the barrel, the more flavor it will impart.

  • In a white wine such as Chardonnay, the oak will impart flavors of toast, caramel or vanilla.
  • You’ll taste flavors of cigar box and spices like pepper and clove in red wine such Cabernet Sauvignon.



Alcohol gives wine a sense of body, as well as weight. Typically the higher the alcohol level, the more full bodied a wine. What determines whether a wine has low or high alcohol? It’s the alcohol by volume or (ABV).

  • A low alcohol wine has 7 to 10% ABV. This gives the wine a lighter weight and texture in your mouth.
  • A wine with high alcohol, typically ranging between 13 to 15%, produces exaggerated heat in your mouth, as well as a perception saltiness.


Pairing Tips
Locally Fresh Caught Fish

Fish Dish

Here are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind when you are thinking of pairing a wine that is been oak aged and/or has a high ABV.

  1. When pairing food and wine, give thought to body, or weight. Fish or chicken dish served with a cream sauce, or a hearty meat dish are nicely suited for a full-bodied wine like a Chardonnay. In contrast, a massive, oak-aged wine would quickly overpower a light, flaky baked fish.
  2.  Select a wine that echoes the flavor to your main dish. For example, if you are serving lamb, then pairing it with an Australian Shiraz, with its eucalyptus character, allows the two to complement each other.


These simple rules of thumb should help you understand the effects oak and alcohol play in your food and wine pairing choices.




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  1. Alison Marriott says:

    Hey there,

    Any thoughts on French vs. American oak (or Hungarian for that matter!) I find I definitely respond more to the subtle qualities in French oak…do you have any preferences?



    • FineLiving says:

      For me, it depends on the grape variety. I prefer American oak for Chardonnay because of the vanilla and coconut imparted. But I like French for Cabs. Part of it is probably tradition and the other part, I think the wood grain and cooperage smooth out the tannins better.