In recent years the use of oak staves, chips and powder has been seen in many cheap wines and some mid-priced wines. The surface area of the wine that is in contact with the oak will increase the flavour extraction for the wood, and staves, chips or powder submerged in the wine increases the surface area considerably. But oak barrels do two things - they impart flavours and allows micro-oxygenation to the wine.
Micro-oxygenation allows incredibly small bubbles of air to pass through the pours of the barrel helping with many of the chemical process going on inside the barrel. Many winemakers are aware of the benefits of micro-oxygenation and have been bubbling oxygen through their stainless steel tanks for a while. With increased surface area associated with chips and micro-oxygenation it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the barrels and chips.
The cutting edge with staves, chips and powders has in recent years been the increased understanding of the importance of seasoning. Improvements have been steady and some winemakers can no longer tell the difference between chips and barrels. A well-made wine using chips will be better than a poor wine made in a barrel. Winemakers are increasingly planning to use chips and staves in mid-priced wines, with several premium wines now using the technology.
The use of various oak alternatives at different stages of fermentation and aging with or without micro-oxygenation gives winemakers an enormous range of possibilities for experimentation. There are lots of opportunities to increase quality and decrease price that the barrel simply cannot offer. For example, it is not usually possible to ferment reds in barrels, currently the earliest winemakers can transfer the red wine to barrel is during the final stages of alcoholic fermentation. But oak alternatives can be used during fermentation when it is claimed that they help build the structure, fix colour and reduce green notes.
The benefits of alternatives are:
- Price - chips and staves cost a fraction of barrels.
- Barrels take up space and require expensive racking solutions.
- Time - barrels require filling, emptying and topping up - all take time and have a labor cost.
- Quality -The quality of barrel alternatives has increased with the growing demand.
- Scale - Barrel alternatives allow winemakers to experiment with different styles on a smaller scale.
While barrels are the earliest piece of winemaking technology, they are a tried and tested way of bringing up fine wines, it seems that for the adventurous winemaker a combination of barrel alternatives with micro-oxygenation promise a range of powerful and cost effective tools to increase the quality of the wine.
As the quality of products on offer increases and more data is accumulated on their use it's likely that oak alternatives won't always be seen as a rather devious short cut for dressing up cheap wines, but increasingly used for premium wines.