Oak barrels were not the winemaking standard for centuries just because they look pretty. Early winemakers found that oak barrels were particularly well suited for flavoring and rounding/concentrating. As modern winemakers contemplate and embrace stainless steel wine barrels, they wonder how this wine barrel measures up in these two areas.
Oak alternatives do the flavoring job nicely. When it comes to flavor, oak barrels don’t always do the job right. Recycled oak barrels have been neutralized in the flavor department, having given all of their oaky goodness to past batches. Oak alternatives are used in recycled barrels and stainless steel wine barrels and tanks alike. Actually, the oak alternatives, chips and staves, have gained the favor of the wine community because they give winemakers more control over the flavoring of their product. A new barrel will only give a batch of wine so much flavor, but with alternatives, winemakers can add oak in bits and pieces and finely tune their final product. So, when it comes to the flavor function, stainless steel wine barrels can confidently match or outperform the classic oak barrel.
What about rounding/concentrating? This is a little harder to measure and replicate. The rounding or concentrating of a batch of wine is achieved through a delicate balance of oxidization and evaporation. Oak barrels are not even consistent in this area – when they perform well, they create a wonderfully aromatic wine. However, when they are bad and leaky or infected or something, they are disastrously bad and the final product is undrinkable.
Stainless steel wine barrels limit the evaporation of wine and the products exposure to oxygen, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on the style of the wine. Stainless steel wine barrels have become incredibly popular in white winemaking for this very reason – less oxygen makes for a better white wine product. However, it doesn’t make stainless steel any less valuable for red wine. Many winemakers appreciate the added control over the oxidization process and use stainless steel wine barrels to create a clean, fruity red wine.
In short, stainless steel wine barrels measure up as a suitable and satisfying alternative to the increasingly more expensive, limiting and cumbersome oak standard.