Drought-induced reduction of leaf gas exchange entails a complex regulation of the plant leaf metabolism. We used a combined molecular and physiological approach to understand leaf photosynthetic and respiratory responses of 2-year-old Quercus ilex seedlings to drought. Mild drought stress resulted in glucose accumulation while net photosynthetic CO2 uptake (Pn) remained unchanged, suggesting a role of glucose in stress signaling and/or osmoregulation. Simple sugars and sugar alcohols increased throughout moderate-to-very severe drought stress conditions, in parallel to a progressive decline in Pn and the quantum efficiency of photosystem II; by contrast, minor changes occurred in respiration rates until drought stress was very severe. At very severe drought stress, 2-oxoglutarate dehydrogenase complex gene expression significantly decreased, and the abundance of most amino acids dramatically increased, especially that of proline and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) suggesting enhanced protection against oxidative damage and a reorganization of the tricarboxylic cycle acid cycle via the GABA shunt. Altogether, our results point to Q. ilex drought tolerance being linked to signaling and osmoregulation by hexoses during early stages of drought stress, and enhanced protection against oxidative damage by polyols and amino acids under severe drought stress.