In a previous article, How and Why Oak is Used in Winemaking, we touched on the basics of oak including why it is used and what characteristics it offers certain wines. The article also touched on the origin of specific oak species from Europe and North America, the differences between the two and what they impart into wine. Today, we will not focus on oak itself in the form of barrels, but oak substitutes, why they are used and the characteristics they can impart into the wine.
For many familiar with the wine industry, it is not new knowledge that oak barrels can get quite pricey. The average barrel can start at around five-hundred US dollars and go up to about a thousand. While these barrels are key for high-end wines that wineries produce, the real deal at times is hardly justifiable for the so-called "2-buck-chuck" or for a line of wines in the lower price range.
You might remember from the previous above mentioned article on oak; when wine is aged in a new oak barrel, this is when the most characteristics of aroma and flavor compounds are imparted into the wine. For even high-end wines or mid-range, this "new oak" is not always appreciated. Some wineries find a solution of imparting oak into even their less-expensive wines, by using these barrels for just a few months (sometimes half a year) to extract the barrels’ harshness. This makes the barrels ready for other finer wines.
However, another solution for more inexpensive wines is the use of oak chips and/or chunks. These are basically what their name implies; chunks of oak, which are toasted to varying degrees--much like barrels--which are placed in the wine at crush/harvest, post-fermentation or even somewhat before the fermentation before they are removed. How and when they are used will have a lot to do with how they "bind" with the wine. This will result in how the wine is perceived on the palate from aromatics to flavors and textures. Out of all of the oak substitutes, this is an affordable option for many winemakers, which has the best outcome in terms of balance within the wine.
Oak Staves are another alternative that tends to have the best results compared to that of using an expensive oak barrel. Just as with the oak chips and chunks, the name says it all. If you look at a barrel vertically, you'll notice "strips" of the oak, which have been bent to form the barrel. Sometimes slightly used barrels are recycled, and the oak staves are stripped. The staves are then connected through their center on a long cord.
Staves can also be used from oak scraps and varying species of cheaper oak, which are then connected on a long cord. The staves are typically toasted in a range of lighter to darker toasts and can be used for various wines during the aging process.
Post-fermentation, if the wine is not put into barrels for aging, they are transferred to a holding tank. This is the time when the staves are put to use. They are hung inside the tank connected to the lid so that they are suspended in the wine. This is how the oak can impart aromatics and flavors into the wine. While this is a cheaper alternative, it is one of the better alternatives that bind with the wine and impart characteristics, which are enjoyable and balanced in the aged wine. If you are not sure what a balanced wine is, you can read another article recently published, What Balance Means in Wine.
Shavings and Powder
Now that we have covered the best alternative to the oak barrel, we’ll move on to the lesser ones. This is not to say they do not have their use or purpose, but in the case of having expectations of a great wine that has used this alternative, it is better not to. However, sometimes that is determined by the skill of the winemaker. Shavings and powder sometimes come in the form of "beans" and "chips". These are typically added during fermentation when the grapes are being crushed and sent off to their fermentation tanks. This is the best way in which this oak form can bind and blend its characteristics into the wine.
During fermentation, the yeast will have the ability to modify the tannin from the oak substitute. This is ideal, as the beans or chips contain harsh tannins, which can overpower a wine’s texture and take away from the balance where the fruit might otherwise be perceived. This substitute, when added during the wine-making process, correctly has the ability to create palatable and even enjoyable textures and flavor perceptions in the wine, even into its finish.
This substitute is just as it says it is, liquid. If you were to have a first-hand look or smell at such a liquid, you might just be put off altogether. This is one substitute that is not uncommon for cheaper wines. While the meaning of "cheap" may vary from one person to the next, I shall clarify; you might expect any red "house" wine in, around and under the $12 range might use such an oak substitute. Try and stay away from these wines. We all know the morning-after result of drinking cheap wines and the hang-over that can destroy an entire productive day.
So how can you tell if a wine has been inoculated with some of this liquid oak? It does not take a trained nose to figure it out. If there are obvious notes of strong vanilla, cinnamon, raw oak notes or strong coffee then it is a big possibility it was used. It is also important to note that you will not find a blend of these aromas and/or flavors, there will be one singular note and it will be heady, almost uncomfortably so.