April 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Art of Oak, Revisited

The toasting process and extraction techniques are the keys to using oak alternatives for quality wine

by Richard Carey

To many, winemaking is 50% art and 50% science; the problem is, we don't know which 50% is which. Winemakers today approach the "art" of winemaking in many different ways. Some are classicists who agree with the Old World view that if something has been done in a certain way for centuries or decades, then that is the proper way to make wine and everything else is just manufacturing a product. Some winemakers are commercial artists, where the bottom line rules; others in the modern art school of winemaking seize on every new technology and abandon the classic roots of the art; pop art winemakers take the craft to zany extremes just to put a product out there and see if anyone finds it interesting.
     My philosophical approach to winemaking could be defined as neo-classical post-modern. I want to create wines that are based on classical traditions in order to get the most out of the past, but also take advantage of the present-and future-elements of the art and the science of our business. This has been my approach to such elements as crossflow filtration, plastic tanks and oak alternatives.
     In today's world, we as winemakers should be concerned with the environmental impact of the traditional ways of making our products, as well as the costs of maintaining those traditions. We as an industry should be looking for ways to make our products in an environmentally sound, sustainable manner, but without sacrificing the qualities we value in our products.
     The primary reason for an oak barrel's existence is the transfer of oak flavors into the wine. To perform its destiny, a barrel requires the finest wood; it must be grown in specific environments; the production process is labor intensive, producing a costly container-and, because of their shape, the barrel takes more square footage of warehouse space per liter of wine stored than any other type of container. Furthermore, a barrel is only good for three to four years before it loses a lot of its ability to impart its flavors into wine.
     One must wonder why we revere these storage containers and continue to use them. It also seems obvious that one of the important things we can do is determine how we can prolong the useful life of barrels to improve their sustainability as wine-storage vessels.
     Other than holding and protecting wine from the environment, a barrel's function is to regulate oxygen transfer into wine while it imparts oak flavors. To control both of these functions, a barrel must be constructed with woods that are calculated to deliver the appropriate constituents into the wine. Yet the wine plugs the oxygen transport, and the solubilization of the oak lactones decreases at logarithmic rates to the point where no appreciable extraction occurs after three years of wine storage, leaving 80% of available lactones tied up in the barrel's wood.

Oak alternatives
Resurfacing a barrel's interior will prolong the life of a barrel for its original intended use. To delay the demise of a barrel's trajectory toward a flower pot, oak alternatives have been developed to work in conjunction with older barrels as well as wines that have not seen a barrel. This concept is important to the sustainable use of barrels as wine-storage vessels. Alternatives also deliver nearly 100% of oak lactones from parts of the wood not feasible to use in constructing a barrel. Again, prolonging the sustainability of the oak forests for wine production.
     The public likes the flavors imparted by barrels. Alternatives to barreling of wine can help save the barrels for those wines that truly do need the softening that happens to wines as they age in barrels. By using barrel alternatives, one gets more bang for the buck, because more of the usable material is employed to get what is needed for flavors. One does not need a barrel to control oxygen management.
     In discussing oak alternatives, it is important to define the different types of alternative products: staves, particles and granulate (or powder). Each of these types of oak alternatives transfers oak characteristics into the wine differently and, as a result, they must be used differently.
     Staves: As an oak alternative, a stave is any plank-like product that has enough depth to mimic a typical barrel stave used in the construction of an oak barrel. This would include the long planks strung together toring the inside of plastic or stainless tanks, as well as shorter versions that are small enough to insert into a bung hole to rehabilitate used barrels. Staves should also be a minimum of 8mm thick and sufficiently long so that the internal mass of the stave allows a much longer time to reach the proper toasted color.
     Particles: This category includes all shapes and sizes that are thinner and smaller than staves, and where the major percentage of its wood is toasted in color. These items are sometimes also known as blocks or dominos. Particles are usually short and virtually uniform in their toasted color throughout.
     Granulate/powder: This category is defined by surface-to-volume ratios. Oak particles that range from less than 1 mm in any direction to pieces about 4 to 8 mm in their longest dimensions and less than 1 to 2 mm in any other dimension would qualify for this category.

Chipping without over-oaking
Some winemakers (and wine writers) claim that they can tell a "chipped" wine by the taste. As with many new techniques, there has been a long learning curve as winemakers started working with these products. Just as a wine can be over-oaked in a barrel, misusing oak alternatives can just as easily ruin a good wine. I have been using oak alternatives for more than 30 years and have had occasions to run side-by-side experiments with barrels and oak alternative treatments on the same wine. The differences between the two have been minimal. I believe that how the manufacturer handles the toasting process and how the winemaker does the extraction are key to using oak alternatives for quality wines that will never be accused of being "chipped."
     Another consideration when using oak particles is how to get oxygen into the barrel or container holding that wine. There are many ways to get the oxygen into the wine, from special tanks to specialized dosing devices. In the 1990s, research on the use of oxygen in winemaking and the sources of oak flavor from barrels resulted in the first micro-oxygenation equipment.

Using oak alternatives
Another, often better, solution is to control the toasting of the final product and then allow for a quicker extraction of the oak flavors. We now have the tools to create designer oak alternatives through these technologies. However, that is only the beginning of the process from the winemaker's perspective. If your winemaking style requires more of a certain compound here, then you want a supplier who uses techniques that give that result.
     For background, I interviewed many winemakers from a variety of winery sizes and locations. The vast majority of winemakers were not permitted by their management to reveal that they used any type of oak barrel alternative. As a result, I am not quoting any winemaker specifically, even though it is estimated that about 95% of wineries use these materials in some manner.
     This reluctance is unfortunate. Too many in the wine industry fear that if it becomes known that they use oak alternatives in their $50-plus bottles of wine, it will be perceived as an inherently lesser wine. Barrel alternative products are like any tool. In the hands of a careful artist, a tool becomes an extension of his orher implementation of the craft. The more control the tool allows, the better the artist will be.
     In my discussions with winemakers across the country and internationally, I have found that more and more of them are using the range of oak alternatives much like a painter's palette. It is obvious that winemakers have available a range of choices in barrel alternatives to use when crafting their wines and imparting the flavors they want into a wine. The problem facing most winemakers is the perennial problem of attention to detail. With all of these tools, there is no reason to have over-oaked wines-unless a winemaker is not paying attention or that is his or her preferred style.
     Most winemakers I have spoken with areusing oak alternatives in their less expensive wines and are trying to extend the life of their existing barrels. Most research shows that barrels do not transmit nearly as much oxygen once the barrels are older than three years. To me, this indicates that winemakers should be considering some level of micro-oxygenation if that is the direction they are headed.
     Many winemakers are adding various forms of oak powders at the crush station, especially in growing areas where it is cooler or in years where color extraction is expected to be low. The idea behind this practice is that the oak powder will help to fix whatever color comes out as quickly as possible.

Useful in whole lines of wines
Although still a minority, a substantial number of wineries exclusively are using oak alternatives in their wines, from low- to high-end, and of these wineries, several have won significant medals in national and international wine competitions. The careful winemaker should not be afraid of using these products in his whole line of wines.
     In conjunction with micro-oxygenation in stainless steel and maturation in plastic barrels, the use of oak alternative products is going to become the preferred method of production based on the cost of production for most wines. This will be driven by price points that need to be met so winemakers can provide a goodproduct at a reasonable price. Improvements in technology will match or even improve on the function of traditional barrels.
     It will certainly take longer for producers of wines at the upper end of the price spectrum to openly embrace oak alternative products and production techniques. In the meantime, using oak alternatives in wines can improve flavor components so more consumers can enjoy increasingly well-made wines.

Richard Carey, Ph.D., is a wine consultant in Lancaster, Pa., and owner of Tamanend Wine Inc.

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