Oaking Beyond the Barrel

It’s no wonder that oak barrels have a long history in winemaking; oak emparts a rich flavor onto wines, a flavor that, for some palates, is synonymous with wine itself. However, since stainless steel wine barrels and other containers have risen in popularity, oaked wine hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s because there are plenty of ways to oak wine without an expensive oak barrel.

In a recent article in VinePair, food and drink writer Tim McKirdy referred to oak as ‘winemakers’ salt.’ No matter how one oaks a wine, it is crucial that the oak flavors don’t dominate the flavor. Bare minimum, one should be able to taste the grape. But the salt analogy really comes to life when considering oak alternatives such as staves or chips.

Oak staves are long strips of toasted oak that are used to oak wine even in stainless steel fermenting tanks. Oak chips are just that, chips of toasted oak, often wrapped in a sort of cheese cloth ‘tea bag’ and added to fermenting wine. Both are significantly less expensive than utilizing an oak barrel.

Cost is just one advantage oak alternatives have over barrel-aging. There’s also the accessibility and sustainability of using stainless steel. And, while there are benefits to barrels that you cannot replicate with an oak alternative – oak barrels are porous, for example, and allow a natural amount of oxygenation to influence the wine throughout fermentation whereas stainless steel is airtight – each of those pros has a partner con – oak barrels impart additional, and perhaps unwanted, tannins and flavors to wine as well.

The choice between using an oak barrel or oak alternatives and stainless steel is just one of many decisions winemakers have to make when approaching an oaked wine. Regardless of which way they go, a winemaker will also have to choose what type of oak, how it has been treated, cured or toasted, and how much time the oak will be in contact with the wine.

When you breakdown a wine ‘recipe,’ McKirdy’s analogy rings true. Oak really is the salt of winemaking. Just as a chef considers how to season a meal, careful not to over or under salt it, faced with a variety of salt options and techniques, winemakers must do the same with oak.