Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oak Barrels vs. Oak Alternatives: Is There a Difference?

There is something wonderful about those smoky, toasted notes in a well-aged, oaky Cabernet, or those warm, vanilla flavors in that velvety oaked Chardonnay. 

Oak flavors express richness to our taste buds, while imparting smoothness to our drink.  But oak aged wines are not cheap to make, nor, many times, to buy. So, does oak aging really matter? Is the manner in which the oak flavor is imparted into the wine of any real importance?  Read on and decide for yourself…

Oak aging a wine can be an expensive proposition.  First, there’s the cost of the oak barrels (upwards to $900 for a high quality French Oak barrel.) Keep in mind that barrels can only be used three or four times before the flavors are leached out.

Now figure in the cost of barrel upkeep, barrel storage, and barrel maintenance.  All are important elements that factor into the cost of the wine. And that cost is then passed on to the consumer who purchases that wonderfully oaky wine.  But we, as consumers, have created a conundrum for the winemaker – we want rich, oaky wines, but at low price points we can afford for everyday consumption.  What’s a wine maker to do? There are oak alternatives, but are we willing to embrace them?

Oak has been used in winemaking for thousands of years.  Oak barrel usage became widespread during the Roman Empire as a way to protect wine while in storage.  In the 1500’s, European winemakers discovered that these wooden barrels not only provided great storage and transportation options, but that certain woods also gave some of the wines a better flavor, and a softer approach.

By the early 1700’s, the French had discovered that of all the types of oak, it was the white oak barrels that imparted the best flavors to a wine during aging.  White oak barrels have continued to be the mainstay for aging wines in for over two hundred years. 

And oak barrels offer the tightest grained wood, allowing the least amount of wine to be lost due to evaporation.  When deciding on an oak barrel, the winemaker must consider where the barrel is from. What is the toast level (the charring inside)?  How did the cooperage craft the barrel? How was the wood dried?  All of these points can affect the wine’s appearance, flavors, and aromas.

Robert Mondavi has been credited with experimenting with different types of oak to achieve different flavor profiles during his research in the 1960’s and 70’s in California.  American oak barrels impart more intense flavors and are perfect for big, bold reds.  Toast levels will also affect the wine; a light toast may impart a coconut or vanilla flavor while a darker toast can bring out a more caramel or smoky taste.  All are important factors to consider when selecting what type and toast to use.

But those decisions are not made lightly. Oak barrels are not cheap to make, purchase, or use.  Oak barrels vary in gallonage and price.  A commercial winery, making 5,000 gallons of wine a year, can easily spend over $130,000 for barrels. Regardless of the size, each barrel can only be used a few times before the oak flavors have leached out and deteriorated.  Then it’s time to purchase new cooperage.

In order to present a wine with those sought-after oaky characteristics at a nominal price point, alternatives must to be considered, and winemakers turned to the alcohol spirit world for ideas.

Alcohol spirit makers (Bourbon, whiskey, etc) had already done the experimentation that led to the development of oak chips, oak powder, and oak staves.  These oak barrel alternatives could be added to a spirit aging in a stainless steal tank, and those beloved oaky flavors would still evolve. Winemakers saw the possibilities, and thought they had an answer.

Unfortunately, wine barrel purists were not impressed.  Their outcry brought about dismissal press reviews, and a negative reception by the wine drinking public.  It had the makings of a reputation disaster for any winery that admitted to using oak chips in their wines.

It was not until 1993, after micro-oxygenation methods were developed (this method imitated the process that occurs in wines aged in oak barrels,) that the use of oak chips in wine was finally legalized in the US.  In Europe, it was illegal to use oak alternatives until 2005.  However, winemakers in both countries were using these alternatives years before they were allowed to by law.

But old beliefs die hard.  Even today, if you ask winemakers in key wine-making states like California, New York, or Washington how they oak their mass-produced dry reds, almost everyone will tell you that oak chips are involved.  But most will not want you to advertise that fact because that wine is still viewed as being of a poorer quality than wine aged in an oak barrel.  The disapproving mindset against oak alternatives still exists today, with many seeing it as a form of cheating.

But let’s be realistic, there are advantages to using oak alternatives instead of barrels. 

Oak chips have a better environmental impact; an oak tree can produce only a few barrels, oak alternatives made from one tree can be used to craft hundreds of bottles of wine.

Oak chips are considered to be one of the cleanest ways to get those oaky flavors into a wine.  Simply put the correct amount of chips into a nylon or mesh bag and place it in the tank.  When the period of time has elapsed for the desired oaky flavors to be achieved, the bag is removed and no residue is left behind in the wine.  The wines are clearer and brighter with a more stable color.

Oak also imparts subtle flavors to the wine.  When using oak chips, a winemaker can experiment with different toast levels and oak varieties, to get different results at a much-reduced cost as compared to using barrels.

Oak chips are inexpensive.  Barrels are expensive.  More labor is involved for the same amount of gallonage when using oak barrels, than when using tanks with oak chips or staves. Oak chips are a great way to help a winemaker deliver a high-quality oaked wine at an attractive price.

Oak chips can actually speed up the winemaking process since the intensity of the oaky flavors can be more controlled with chips.  This will also affect the color, flavor, aroma, and style of the wine that is influenced by the type of oak used.

But, in the end, it is the winemaker’s prerogative how to add oak to a wine.  Although oak barrels bring to mind deep traditions and evoke feelings of quality, a wine consumer might not be able to really tell the difference. 
And considering that winemakers have been using some type of oak alternative for years, even concurrently with their oak barrels, maybe its time to bring the use of oak chips out into the mainstream, and accept them.

~ Joy