Adventures in Alternative Winemaking with Barrel Staves and Inserts


While oak alternatives used to carry a negative stigma and be the domain of large wineries, these winemaking tools have been gaining popularity among wineries of all types and sizes lately. Barrel staves and inserts provide winemakers with opportunities to dabble in oak with less commitment and at a fraction of the cost of full barrels. Of course, there are both advantages and disadvantages to using oak alternatives rather than traditional barrels, but advancements in stave and insert products are making this option more sustainable and attractive.

In this article, we will explore what staves and inserts are, discuss how to select them for your wine, and provide tips from industry experts who work with these products regularly.

An Overview of Staves and Inserts

Staves are simply the wooden components that make up a barrel. However, staves are also used by winemakers who add them into stainless steel tanks at various stages of wine processing. Winemakers often use pieces of oak instead of or in addition to oak barrels to help control the oak profile better.

In the wine industry, the term “inserts” refers to instruments that allow winemakers to add new aromas and textures to wine while it is inside the barrel. It is important to create a slow and progressive wood extraction in a similar way to traditional barrels and also ensure that the process is sanitary and free of leaks. Winemakers can insert oak staves directly into a tank to help wine gain an oaky character. It is also possible to use mature oak that has been toasted and string it together on a stainless-steel wire for a more intense oak profile, thereby continuing to reuse and repurpose old barrels.

Popular Oak Alternative Options

To learn more about current trends with staves and inserts, we asked a few companies that work with oak alternatives to share their industry insights. Michael Peters, sales manager and winemaker for TN Coopers, told The Grapevine Magazine about how wineries are using different oak alternative formats to suit their needs and based on the price point of the wine.

“Fan staves, inserts, blocks, and chips are used in tanks depending on price point,” Peters explained. “Barrel inserts installed through the head or slid through the bung hole have the benefit of the micro-oxygenation that the barrel provides. Most of these wines are aged nine to 15 months and are typically aged short-term for early release.”

Shaun Richardson, the general manager of Laffort USA, told us that his company’s biggest-selling items are oak chips and staves. “Oak chips are quick and easy to implement, giving full flavor impact within six weeks, both in aromatics (for example, the Nobile Sweet and Spice) and in mouthfeel (for example, Nobile Base),” he said. Richardson also went on to explain, “Oak staves tend to give a more complete flavor and palate profile than chips, integrate better, and give more finesse. Again, there are two key impacts, for example, Nobile Intense and Nobile XTREME give the high toast aromatic impact, and Nobile XBASE gives tremendous mouthfeel. Note that within the stave range, there are three different thicknesses: seven mm staves will integrate within four to six months, 12 mm staves are five to seven months, and 18 mm staves fully integrate in six to eight months.”

Bruce Felix, the owner of Pacific Winemaking, shared with us that his company sells oak alternatives from various manufacturers but has found that Boise (by Vivelys) French oak chips are a favorite among wineries for adding tannic structure and organoleptic qualities to red wines. “Their range of technical oenological oak provides a wide variety of options which can be used on their own or blended to suit the winemaker’s particular profile requirements,” Felix said. “Boise (by Vivelys) has recently released its new range of staves, and I expect them to be very popular as well.”

Meanwhile, John Waldrup, the East Coast sales agent for Trust Cooperage, told us, “French and Hungarian oak tend to be the most popular due to their higher vanillin and furfural content.”

Joshua Rubin of MI Wine Barrel has observed that that oak chips, cubes, and staves mostly, as well as some powders, have been widely used among wineries lately. “Cubes and other shapes like that are beneficial for having less surface area and therefore add oak tannins and flavor slower, which is more like the barrel,” he said.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Staves and Inserts

As with all aspects of winemaking there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to using oak alternatives in place of or in addition to traditional barrels. Waldrup of Trust Cooperage, for example, says that the advantage of using staves and inserts is simple economics. Meanwhile, Rubin of MI Wine Barrel points out the advantages of being able to control the oaking process more scientifically.

Peters of TN Coopers said, “Staves and inserts offer the highest quality and most barrel-like oak extraction.” He went on to say, “With the larger tech and fan staves and barrel inserts, the slower and more barrel-like the flavors are and less of an oaky or woody flavor profile. Using staves and inserts require longer aging for oak extraction, while chips and blocks are shorter time-wise.”

Felix of Pacific Winemaking said an advantage is that “Staves are a good method of releasing their benefits to the wine over a period of time. That longer extraction timeline of staves can be an advantage in that the slower release (compared to oak alternatives with higher surface area – e.g. chips, powder) can result in a better integration into the wine.”

Richardson of Laffort USA says that staves provide advantages because of the complete sense of integration and the ability to achieve complex toasts. “Staves are larger in size than chips, thus can be toasted more similarly to a barrel stave, where temperature and time can be varied, and the depth of the toasting process can be varied.” He said, “Chips being smaller necessitate a more uniform toast throughout the product. The same applies to barrel inserts, which are more like staves.”

However, some disadvantages of staves are cost and time, with both being critical for winemakers. “Many wines need to be turned around to reach the market in a few months, and staves simply cannot achieve this,” shared Richardson of Laffort USA. “Chips are the go-to product for fast market response.”

“The longer extraction may not always be suitable where commercial constraints such as cost or production timing affect the wine,” said Felix of Pacific Winemaking. “Staves can also be difficult to handle and require good material handling frames or tank set-ups.”

“The disadvantage is that using adjuncts properly can be a bit technical and there are a plethora of substandard products out there,” said Waldrup of Trust Cooperage about the potential downsides of using oak alternatives.

Key Considerations for Staves and Inserts

Because the process of adding oak staves to steel tanks as oak alternatives creates a desirable flavor and is often more affordable than traditional methods, staves are gaining popularity among boutique wineries. But as a winemaker, there are many different things to consider before integrating staves and inserts into your process.

When staves are cut into pieces, they can yield a wide range of aromatics and flavors with various toast levels. These intricacies can take some getting used to until you gain ample experience working with staves to control the oak impact. Another consideration is the need to measure dose rates for wood by assessing the percentage of contact area of a new barrel to express the oak and also the gram-per-liter measurement.

Winemakers should know that staves can help stabilize a wine’s long-term color but also that a larger exposure area means a larger oak impact. Learning when to add staves may take a bit of trial and error. For example, adding staves in the pre-fermentation stage helps the yeast react and modifies tannins and aromas. Meanwhile, adding staves in the post-fermentation stage creates a bolder impact and greater level of toasting. There’s also a popular trend right now of repurposing staves for decorative purposes around the winery for things like signs, clocks, barstools, planters, ice tubs, platters, tables, and candle holders.

But ultimately, a winemaker must decide what type of notes a new wine should have when considering inserts, such as vanilla, spiciness, toasted, or roasted. Inserts can increase the sensation of sweetness in wine and change the entire structure of the mouth feel. When planning a winery budget, they also offer advantages because inserts help extend the life of existing barrels to save costs. Many winemakers these days are experimenting with adding stave sections to the insides of barrel walls and securing them with stainless steel rods to reduce costs and waste. However, it is always important to clean and sanitize the barrels regularly so that the inserts don’t cause the wine to have an off-putting flavor.

Deciding to Use Oak Alternatives

Despite greater widespread use, many wineries still have a policy of not intervening with the wine production process with staves and inserts unless there is a true need or benefit. Yet it is becoming clearer that stave and insert technology offers significant benefits to winemakers, such as consistency, greater overall control of the finished product, the ability to experiment, and lower costs. Just remember that winemaking is all about balance because a heavy-handed approach can damage a new wine beyond repair. We’ll close with a few pieces of advice from our industry experts about using barrels staves and inserts in the winemaking process.

Peters of TN Coopers advises, “Use a variety of toast levels, thereby creating a more complex and barrel like profile. For a 30 percent new oak profile in a 20-barrel blend, use six total: one medium long, two medium, two medium plus, and one medium plus long.”

Trust Cooperage’s Waldrup advises wineries to “Start out on a smaller scale using adjuncts for 10 to 20 percent of your wine and work your way up once you have found the right blend.”

“Less is more because you can always add more, but once it’s over-oaked, there is no going back!” advises Rubin of MI Wine Barrel. “Also, buy in bulk to save money and have options and extra oak alternatives on hand.”

“Ensure that your method of including oak alternatives is managed well,” advises Felix of Pacific Winemaking. “Winemaker tasting on a regular basis will help to achieve the best result, and trials prior to use on a bench scale are important.”

Richardson of Laffort USA advises winemakers to experiment and blend because trials are the key to meeting wine style goals. “One of the techniques we use for Nobile is creating a set of trial samples for the chips in one-gallon jugs and allowing the wines to age for six weeks before tasting,” he explained. “When the wines are ready, we not only taste the different stand-alone wines, but create blends, for example using 50 percent of Nobile Base to give mouthfeel, 40 percent Nobile Sweet and Spice to provide complex aromatics and 10 percent Nobile Intense to give highlight high toast notes. Don’t just settle for the simple profiles on offer, customize your own wine style.”

Richardson also advises wineries to start now and not wait to start the stave and insert experimentation process. “Six weeks may seem like an eternity when the marketing team is breathing down your neck, but by starting now, you will have a clear idea of how the Nobile range matches your specific wines, and what flavor profile of chips and staves you prefer,” he said. “That information will allow you to make much better decisions when you need to meet market demands.”