To Oak or Not to Oak
A luscious flavor enhancer or hellish destroyer of wine?
Making the Decision. . . Wine-making at home gives you the freedom to make your wine any way you want: thick heavy reds, light fruity roses, crisp elegant whites, all made to your style. The use of oak, in the right amount, can turn an average wine into a prizewinner. Oaks delicate vanilla scent and complex toastiness enhances the fruit flavors and aromas already present, forming a complex bouquet. On the other hand the inappropriate use of oak can damage a delicate wine beyond repair, and an oak overdose can take so many years to die off that the wine passes from youth to maturity to feeble old age before the strong woody flavors are softened enough to make it drinkable.
Your first decision will be whether to use oak at all. Commonly, only full-bodied red wines and richly flavored whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are treated with oak. Also, because oak can give an intense flavor impression, only premium wines are treated; 28-day kits probably dont have enough flavor to balance the addition of oak and less expensive juices like Chablis or French Columbard arent helped by oaking them. When in doubt, ask a seasoned wine-maker what he/she recommends, or call the wine-making stores in your area.
Your next decision will be to choose a form of oak. Several things will influence your decision: the amount of money you want to spend, how much room and how much wine you have, and the what type of oak flavor you want.
Oak Barrels The traditional image of the wine-making cellar is of the cellar master, his face lined with the wisdom of experience, drawing a crimson stream of wine from his massive, sturdy oak barrel. Behind him, row after row of barrels sleep with their precious contents growing more potent and valuable with each passing year. Its a pretty picture, but the truth is only the finest and highest priced wineries can afford to use new oak, and some fine New World wineries dont use oak barrels at all.
The true magic of an oak barrel lies not only in its ability to impart woody flavor but also from a plethora of reactions between oak and wood, one of which causes water and alcohol to evaporate in equal measure. This concentrates the remaining wine, increasing all of its flavors. This also makes it necessary for you to top up the barrel periodically to prevent the ullage (airspace) from oxidizing your wine.
There are theories about the effects of tight bunging, vacuum ullage, and whether the topping actually causes more oxidation than it prevents, but they really move beyond theory into the realm of barrel philosophy. In the end, a barrel is more than the sum of the oak flavors it can impart
Counting the Cost Part One: A Small Barrel A barrel is expensive. Even a small (19 liter) barrel will cost over $150.00. This might fit into your budget but theres another cost incurred by barrels that wine books never talk about. Once a barrel has been filled with wine, it should be kept full of wine. Storing it empty, might be attacked by vinegar-making bacteria, mold, fungus, and rot, at which point you must throw away the barrel.
At first glance this doesnt seem like such a hardship. After all, if youre going to buy a barrel youll want to keep your wine in it until its ready to bottle, right? Well no, not necessarily. In a small barrel the flavors of oak are transferred very quickly into the wine. This is due to the ratio of barrel surface area to liquid volume. Small barrels have a lot of oak surface in relation to the volume of wine inside them. A 19 liter barrel will have about 200 square centimeters of oak per liter of wine. Used on a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, the barrel will have imparted enough oakiness in 4 to 5 days. At that point the wine must come out or it will become so oaky it will taste like extract of plywood. Then you must have another batch of wine ready to go in the barrel immediately. If the next wine is a red, it will probably be oaky enough in 2 to 3 weeks. It is then time to rack a new batch of wine into the barrel. This one may last 4 to 6 weeks. Eventually the oakiness subsides in the barrel and you can leave your batch in for a full year.You will probably need 8 to 10 batches in the first year, a considerable investment in not only wine, but also in all the primary and secondary fermenters necessary to ensure that your wine is ready as you need it.
Another thing to consider when costing out the care and feeding of an oak barrel is the topping wine necessary. If your cellar has low humidity or warms up in the summer you will experience considerable evaporation, as much as half a liter a week under the worst conditions. You must top this up or the ullage will spoil your wine. So you need even more wine just to keep up with what cellar masters call The Angels Share. A 19 liter barrel could need almost as much wine to fill it the first year as a 225 liter barrel.
Counting the Cost, Part II: A large barrel Is the answer then to use a 225 liter barrel? Maybe. Certainly the ratio of surface area to volume is a lot more conducive to long term storage of wine. A 225 liter barrel has about 80 square centimeters of oak exposure per liter of wine. At that rate you will only probably need two batches of wine to season it in the first year; some top wineries use new oak barrels every year for their premium wines. The drawbacks include the fact that youre going to have to make 225 liters of one wine variety on hand every time you want to fill the barrel. Your variety will be limited. Also this barrel, as much as any other, will need to be kept full at all times. When you want to bottle your wine you must have another 225 liters of one kind of wine ready to go
So Whos Dumb Enough to Use Oak Barrels? Its beginning to look like no one in their right mind would ever want to use a barrel. Rest easy. The barrel is without doubt the finest way to impart a quality oak flavor to your wine—you just have to be sure youre ready to keep it fed and happy. This may involve purchasing a barrel with a friend or a group of friends. That way youll not only split the costs, you also wont have 225 liters of one kind of wine. If you arent sure whether cooperage (barrels) are right for you, talk it over with your local wine-making shop and get a couple of books that discuss barrels. Desmond Lundys Handmade Table Wines has a good section on barrels, Ted Underhills Making Better Wines contains good information, and Thomas Bachelders You Made This? has an excellent discussion of barrel use.
The Chips are Down Oak chips are cheap, require no maintenance, no break-in period, never go sour or get infected, and they allow you to experiment with different styles and flavors of oak without investing in new barrels. Used properly, they give you that toasty vanilla finished quality that only oak can deliver. On the other hand, they arent the sublime improver of wine that an oak barrel can be.
Chips come in three forms; powder, shavings and chips. They are also available untoasted, or with a dark, light, or medium toast. Also you can choose between American and French wood. How will you decide which one you need?
Taking a powder looking like little more than sawdust, the oak powder is a convenient and easy way to get oak flavor and aroma into your wine. The powder is added to the wine in a measured amount, usually about 50 grams per 23 liters of wine, before or during primary fermentation. The frothing and rolling action of the fermenting wine will extract almost all of the oak within one week. The powder can also be used after fermentation with good success.
The nicest thing about the powder is that its so convenient; throw it in before adding your yeast and then ignore it. When you rack to your secondary fermenter almost all the powder gets left behind with the yeast sediment in the bottom of the carboy. Oak flavor and no fuss.
Shavings and Chips: Made by pushing selected pieces of oak through a planer or a chipper, shavings and chips are in many respects similar to oak powder: no fuss or maintenance—oak flavor without the investment and worry of a barrel. The difference lies in when you use them. While powders work best if added before or during fermentation, chips work best if added after primary fermentation is ended. This means you can delay your decision to add oak until the wine is finished fermenting.
Chips are available untoasted, medium, and dark toast. The varieties are French and American wood. Which one you choose will depend on the type of wine you are oaking and the style which you are trying to emulate. If you were trying to make a big oaky California Zinfandel you would want medium toast American chips. If you make a delicate Pinot Noir youll want medium toast French chips, and so on. if you want more advice on choosing the type of oak best suited to your wine, ask the people who sold you your juice in the first place. They should have an idea what will best compliment their products.
Extract - Wood-juice for Wine: Without a doubt oak extract is the most convenient way to get oak flavor and aroma in your wine. All you do is add a measured amount of the liquid to your finished wine and stir. Usually youll start by adding half the amount you think youll need and gradually add more to taste. the nice thing about using extract is that theres no more waiting; once it tastes oaky enough you can go ahead and drink it.
Thats great! Everyone should use extract! The only trouble with extract is that the quality of flavor isnt as high as chips or shavings, and certainly isnt is good as using a barrel. In fact, some of the cheaper extracts on the market are made with nasty ethanol and floor sweepings, and taste more of burnt bread crumbs than of fresh toasty oak. The very best oak extracts are made from a neutral white wine base and high quality oak powder. however, even the best ones lack some of the delicacy of the fresh oak products. The upshot is this; if you want to quickly add oak flavor to a wine without fuss, and with no need to age it for smoothness, oak extract can make an acceptable substitute for chips or powder.
The Bottom Line on Oak: Three things will influence your choice of oaking methods: time, money, and the amount of wine you intend to produce. For the small scale wine-maker chips and powder will provide good oak flavors and aromas in any wine theyre added to. For the serious enthusiast nothing can beat the mystical qualities of a barrel. For a wine that needs doctoring up, oak extract can help make it palatable.