I blame Lucy, as in Lucile Ball of I Love Lucy fame, for perpetuating one of the romantic notions we often associate with wine making. There was Lucy, in that all too familiar scene, stomping grapes to make wine. Fun? Yes – practical for today’s winemaking – no!
Many of us have similar stock images of the wine cellar stacked to the ceiling with French oak barrels filled to the bung with Pinot noir. Few things capture the ambience and magic of winemaking more than the traditional oak barrel and yet within the cellar there is a secret. More about the secret later.
It all began with the first “accidental” fermentation and the lucky fool who first consumed it and not long afterwards, it can be reckoned, to the merchants (reportedly as far back as 900 BC) who needed to move it: First there was the amphorae (clay pots to hold the wine) and later barrels made from wood. Oak was found to work best because of its cellular structure (less porous than other woods, such as pine) and imparted a pleasant flavor to the wine it contained.
Coopers have a wide variety of oak species to consider when designing an oak barrel. A tremendous amount of research exists comparing the chemical constituencies of different sources of oak finding French oak tends to impart about 2 ½ times more ellagitannin phenolics, while American oak offers more oak flavors and odorants. When it comes down to the decision of whether one winemaker will choose an American, French, Hungarian, or other European sourced oak barrel much of the decision is left to past experience, tradition, availability, and frequently price. A quick look at World Cooperage, a well-known source of oak barrels, found the average price for an American oak barrel (59gal) to be $280, while the French equivalent was $680, and a comparable eastern European barrel somewhere between. Oak is pricey (and a lot of work to maintain), and has a limited life (around 3 - 6 years) – afterwards they are either shaven and re-toasted or become flower planters.
Here are a few more things about oak barrels before I reveal the secret. Other than serving as a convenient and decorative storage device for our wine, oak barrels provide:
1. A Place for Oxidation: Because of the micro-oxidative function of oak barrels (they let a little bit of oxygen in and evaporate water from the wine), the tannins tend to mellow, which allows for increased color and wine stability.
2. A Place to Mature: As a vessel for maturation, the oak imparts its oaky-goodness (flavors and odorants) to the wine.
3. A Place to Ferment: Fermenting white wines in new oak barrels lends a creamy mouth feel to the appropriate white, such as Chardonnay; while others, such as Sauvignon Blanc are designed to be fruit-forward to show off their youth and are fermented cool in a stainless steel tank. Frequently some whites are fermented in oak and the barrel is then passed down to the red wine to age!
The value of oak barrels is significant and is steeped in tradition and is used by many winemakers to showcase their best wines. There are others, however, that bypass the traditional use of oak barrels by using – here is the secret – oak alternatives. Surely this is Blasphemy!
The oak is out of the bag, so to speak, and ironically oak alternatives frequently show up in bags: bags of oak staves and spirals (think sticks), bags of chips (think of a wood chipper) and bags of powder (think of oak dust). Yes, winemakers use oak alternatives at various stages, from pre-fermentation, during fermentation, to post-fermentation to gain many of the benefits of oak without the expense and time-consuming maintenance of oak barrels.
Oak alternatives are not as romantic as the standard Bordeaux style oak barrel but serve some of the same functions – at a fraction of the cost. And before you dismiss oak alternatives, I suggest you do a side-by-side blind comparison of a similar styled wine; two aged in oak barrels and two with oak alternatives and let your taste decide.
Wine and romance go together just like wine and oak barrels (and sometimes, alternatives) – because it works! Our romantic ideals and imagery associated with wine become our experience. Though the secret is now out of the bag we can still appreciate the care given to our wine, whether our oak is in the form of barrels or chips, it need not interfere with our oak romance.
Source: Schahinger, G. & Rankine, B. (2005). Cooperage for Winemakers: A manual on the construction, maintenance and use of oak barrels. Winetitles, Adelaide, AUS.