Ever Wonder -- Can Oak Flavor in Wine Come from Powder, Chips and Staves?

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Oak has been used as an aging vessel for wines for centuries. Wines get added flavors and complexity from being aged in oak barrels, especially new oak.

But oak barrels are expensive. And they only impart flavor to wines during their first two to three uses.

So, to get the oak flavors without all the cost, some wines are made with oak chips, oak staves and even oak powder.

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Using these oak barrel alternatives allows wine makers to use less expensive containers (e.g., Stainless Steel tanks) and still get the desired oak flavors.

After the wine has the necessary time in contact with the chips, staves or powder, they are physically removed or filtered out and consumers never know the difference.

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This may seem ‘wrong’ to many wine purists, but it is allowing winemakers to produce oak flavors in their wines at considerably lower costs. And, studies have been done that show consumers can’t tell the difference.

But, since wine labels don’t tell us the difference, I wonder if we’d change our opinions of wines that are produced with these oak alternatives instead of the traditional oak barrels?

Toasted Oak Barrels and Their Effect on Wine Flavor

Last time we looked at the differences between new oak versus neutral oak wine barrels. New oak imparts lots of flavors to wine. But after about three vintages, the oak no longer imparts flavor so it is called neutral oak.

Much of the flavor imparted by the oak occurs naturally from the raw wood. But winemakers learned long ago that by "toasting" the inside of an oak barrel, they can enhance these flavors.

After a barrel is built, its inside can be exposed to fire to "toast" it. This is done either over an open flame or using a hand-held torch. The fire 'caramelizes' the wood's natural sugars and brings out complex compounds. From this, the wine will ultimately take on flavors that are toasty, charred, spicy and sweet depending on the amount of time the wood is toasted.

A lightly toasted barrel spends about 25 minutes exposed to flame while a heavily toasted barrel may get up to one hour of flame exposure.

Essentially, the heavier the toast, the stronger and more varied are the imparted flavors:

Light Toasting - Vanilla, coconut, caramel, clove and cinnamon

Medium Toasting - Vanilla, honey, caramel, toast, coffee, cocoa

Heavy Toasting - Vanilla, espresso, smoke, crème brûlée, butterscotch, toffee, molasses

Oak interacts with wine differently depending of the different grape varieties. Oak may impart hints of chocolate to a Merlot, and vanilla or coconut to a Zinfandel. White wines aged in oak (think Chardonnay) typically develop flavors of vanilla, baked apple, caramel, honey, toasted marshmallow, or buttered toast.

A winemaker will decide on what degree of toasting is appropriate for their wine’s style. Our 'job' is to enjoy all the wonderful flavors that oak, and toasted oak, add to our wine. Cheers!

Aging Wine in New Oak versus Neutral Oak

Wine may be fermented and aged in a variety of materials including stainless steel, oak and ceramic vessels, including concrete. The use of oak barrels is very common and its use dates back to the early days of Roman wine making.

While stainless steel imparts no additional flavor to a wine, and ceramics and concrete can add hints of minerality, oak barrels can have influences that range from subtle to intense.

When wine is aged in oak barrels, it develops flavors from the wood. Most commonly, oak barrels result in vanilla flavor that works well with many white and red wines. Oak barrels may also be toasted on their insides to varying degrees, and that adds smoky or toasty flavor to the wine.

If a wine is aged in 100% new oak, it will likely be very bold, rich, spicy and, of course, oaky. But, wines pull these flavors out of barrels relatively quickly. After the first year of use, a barrel loses much of its flavoring ability and, after three vintages, the wine has extracted most all of the oak's flavors, thus it is considered neutral oak.

Wines may still be fermented or aged in neutral barrels. Such aging tends to soften wines, particularly tannic wines, without adding the extra flavors. Neutral oak is typically used to maintain the fruit qualities in a wine while still getting some of the other benefits of aging in oak.

Next time we'll look a bit further into the process of 'toasting' the inside of an oak barrel. Until then, Cheers!