Ancient winemakers discovered many centuries ago that wines stored in oak barrels acquired a much better aroma and flavor compared to other storage vessels. Perhaps it was a chance discovery, but today, the tradition continues, as wine producers still use oak products to add flavor and complexity to wine. When oak wood is introduced during the fermenting and aging processes, wine takes on the subtle characteristics of the wood as oxygen is released. But barrels are expensive and it takes time, patience and skill to get it right, especially since only some of the wine is in contact with the insides of the barrels.

Today, many commercial winemakers use small pieces of oak chips in stainless steel tanks to allow for much more contact between wood and wine, making the process of influencing flavor less time consuming and expensive.

Wood & Wine in France

The basic approach of intertwining wine and wood has not changed much in France.

The French wine authorities, Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), that control and regulate the wine standards openly approved of using wood chips in 2006 and 2009. In 2006, they gave the go-ahead for wood to be used in “finished wine” (wine which has terminated fermentation), and in 2009, they approved the use of wood chips in wine undergoing fermentation. On average, wine remains in contact with oak chips for two to three weeks during fermentation and a few months after fermentation.

Christophe Veyssiere a consulting wine maker from Le Centre Oenologique, said:

“Wood chips are suitable for all types of wine, red, white and rosé, but a lot depends on the objectives of the winegrower and the needs of his consumer.”

Equipped with a testing laboratory in Soussac Bordeaux, Veyssiere is part of a team of 13 professionals who provide services to 300 winemakers and five cooperatives in the region. He stated, "We are technicians, with our clients we don’t make the kind of wine we like to drink or make, our clients are looking for wine that’s gourmand, easy to drink."

When asked if there were any disadvantages to using chips Veyssiere said: "Not really, except that it’s important for wine producers to choose the right supplier. Using the right raw material is vital".

Veyssiere said aging takes much longer in traditional oak barrels suitable for more upmarket brands.

Wood, Quality Wine Production & International Demand

Wine production and wine consumption, however, are changing with varying trends from country to country. According to the International Organization for Wine and Vine (OIV), France was still the largest wine producer in 2014, and the United States remained the largest wine consuming country.

Gallo Consumer Wine Trends' 2014 report showed that younger consumers are now mixing their wines rather than drinking it as is. The report stated that 66% of these consumers mix wine with fruit juice, 51% prefers to make wine cocktails and 48% mix their wine with other supporting beverages such as club soda.

For the commercial wine maker, this means concentrating more on quantity rather than top quality. Philippe Passani, the communication and design director from Inozy France says: “Americans are the biggest wine consumers today; we should give them what they need”, so the company has come up with a brand new innovative system for extracting oak for wines, one which they say will drastically reduce time and labour but will still maintain that perfect level of quality set out by the vintner himself.

Licensed only in July of this year, the computer based system focuses more on average to mid range quality wines as opposed to high-end brands.

How does it work?

With this new electronic impedance spectroscopy system, the wine maker is in total control in the cellar operations; he sets the desired intensity and flavor of his wine still using oak chips in contact with the wine while the nitrogen bottle helps him avoid any undesired oxidation.

Passani said “More wineries are using oak chips for oak extraction, it’s easy to extract and the best way to define a profile, but there’s no need now to wait for four to eight weeks, rectify and start again as with the present system.”

Passani explained wineries have different requirements, different needs.

He enthused: “Our system provides the tools, the winemaker defines the profile, and he is totally free. Our software system comes with a tank connected to the main tank with sensors in the input and output that stops once the user-defined target is reached. And the best news is that all this takes only 8 days ’’

New techniques such as Smart Oak, a modern and efficient way to naturally improve average wines in less time, is good news. In today’s economic climate, supply and demand are important factors for wine retailers and producers to consider, and not everyone can afford the expensive grand cru brands of wine. Millennials today might have less money than baby boomers, but they are consuming more wine and are less demanding.