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Written by Jim Brumm
When it comes to winemaking, the phrase “oak alternatives” is somewhat of a misnomer. In winemaking, there really is no alternative, is there? Oak and wine go together like Burns and Allen, like a wink and a smile. Though other woods have been tried in the past, oak is wine’s best friend.
People have been using oak barrels to make and store wine since before the Roman Empire. It was discovered early that oak was not only easy to work with when it came to fashioning barrels, but that the wood itself imparted subtle flavors and characteristics to the wine itself. Oak adds maturity, aroma, flavor, structure and balance to otherwise ordinary wines. The chemical and biological reactions between wine and oak help stabilize color and help with elevage.
But wine barrels are expensive, and becoming more so, going for anywhere from $300 to $2000, depending on the source. And with each use of a barrel, the properties imparted to the wine lessen by degree, until they are no longer effective. Many wineries use new oak wine barrels for each vintage to ensure quality and consistency from year to year, but the costs add up quickly.
Enter oak alternatives, a method—- a better method, some say—- to get the oaky characteristics into wine without the expense of buying new wine barrels year after year.
Cyril Derreumaux, general manager of Vivelys USA – Oenodev, in Santa Rosa, California, said, “Oak alternatives are cheaper, and make it easier to control flavors, structure, and consistency. They can increase fruit and color and help work on the softness of the wine. If the tannins are harsh, oak can change that. The right oak can restore liveliness and aromatics.”
The concept is simple: Instead of buying oak barrels year after year, a winemaker can make wine in reusable stainless steel tanks and add oak as needed for the flavor or other characteristics he or she wants.
Oak alternatives come in five main forms. They are, from smallest to largest, liquids, powder, shavings, chips, cubes, and sticks (or staves). The oak used comes from the same sources as the wood used for barrels, just in a different form.
In addition to different sizes, oak alternative suppliers offer different toast levels, from light to medium to dark. The oak is simply put into the wine either before or after fermentation to garner the oaky flavors we have all grown to love.
“There are two main reasons for using oak alternatives,” said Len Napolitano, sales manager at The Barrel Mill, in Minnesota. “Primarily it’s a matter of economics. Oak alternatives are less expensive than barrels and save time. You can achieve good results in a fraction of the time needed with barrels.”
The reason it takes less time is that with oak alternatives there is much more surface area exposed to the wine. “In a barrel,” said Napolitano, “the staves expose the parallel grain – the grain side of the wood. The absorbance of the wine is very slow. With alternatives you’ve got smaller pieces that expose not only the side grain but the soft grain. You get more surface area.”
Having access to different levels of toasted oak can give a winemaker more control over the flavors and aromas of the wine. A winemaker can choose to use a variety of toast levels to create unique blends and control particular characteristics. Most oak alternative suppliers offer multiple toast options, which allow for more complexity.
“If you have a weak wine,” said Derreumaux, “you can use chips to reinforce the structure. If you’re looking for vanilla notes, use light to medium toast. Depending on the final objective, the winemaker can choose the oak specifically.”
In order to get even more surface area, Barrel Mill uses oak spirals. Starting with oak dowels, spirals are cut into the wood to expose more of the wood surface.
“We looked at existing options before the spiral; the object was always to have more surface area,” said Napolitano. “We realized that if we cut sideways into the wood it would expose a lot more surface area. It allows us to tie together six individual spirals in a mesh net and just drop them into the barrel.”
If a winemaker is not sure how much oak he or she wants to add, oak alternatives allow them to add oak incrementally as they go along in the process.
Oak Solutions Group, in Napa, California, offers a trial kit for winemakers who have never used oak alternatives and would like to experiment. Oak Solutions offers powders, chips, staves, and barrel inserts. They also, along with Beverage Supply Group of Napa, California, offer liquid tannins gleaned from the same oak sources.
While some purists will always insist on oak barrels as the only true way to make wine, the world is changing and oak alternatives offer a versatile method to craft wine, one that provides versatility while saving money and time.