Traditional Cooperage vs. Oak Alternatives in Modern Wine Making

The use of wine barrels originated as a means to store and transport wine. Local woods were initially utilized for convenience to the wine makers. When selecting wood, wine makers were more likely to select woods that were least likely to impact the final product. In the 1700 hundreds wine makers began to notice the benefits of casking wine in selected oak specifically the Baltic oak fount in North Eastern Poland. This process utilized the craftsmanship of a cooper, or a tradesman who created casks consisting of thin slats of wood, which were arranged vertically to create a container. A round “head piece” on both ends of the cask usually accompanied these casks. The cask also utilized metal hoops created by a Hooper to help the cask retain their shape. The cask is usually widest at the middle. And within the body of the cask, a small round hole is drilled in which the wine could be poured. During the 20th century the use of oak barrels began to decline with the increase use of steel barrels. This greatly decreased the number of coopers producing barrels.

The use of oak in cooperage improves the stability of the wine’s color and clarity. For a wine maker this allows for a more consistent product. This is helpful for wine makers producing large amounts of product or wine makers making a desired product repeatedly. The use of oak also decreases some of the harsher undertones that are seen in young wines. The use of oak flavors also gives a smoother and deeper texture to the wine that is often desired by consumers. The addition of oak to wine softens tannins.

The modern wine maker has many choices available to them when it comes to utilizing oak in wine making. This ranges from traditional cooperage (the use of wooden casks for storage and aging) or the use of refurbished barrels to numerous oak alternatives such as chips, dust, planks/staves, cubes, “dominos” and even liquid extracts.

Price can often be the determining fact when choosing whether to use a traditional oak barrel as opposed to an oak alternative. A high quality oak barrel can cost a wine maker as much as $1000 for a good quality French oak barrel. Using the equation that one-barrel of wine produced 60 gallons of wine or 300 bottles, this is an additional $3.33 for each bottle of wine. In addition to the cost of the barrel, there is also the cost associated with aging the wine. Some wine coinsures do not believe a wine primes until it has aged for 20 years.

Oak alternative provide a less costly method to infuse oak flavor and incorporate the benefits of oak into wine at a greatly reduced cost. Large amounts of wine can be produced at a more rapid rate. While this allows wines to be oaked, many wine enthusiasts still prefer their wine to be aged in oak barrels.

The most common wood alternative used is wood chips. These oak chips are added at various stages during the winemaking process. Some wine makers prefer to add oak chips directly to the fermenting wine, while others use permeable bags full of oak chips in wine vats in a manner similar to steeping tea. Oak chips are available in a variety of different types, varying by their forest of origin, their size, the amount they have been toasted, and whether they have been pre-soaked in water prior to being added to the wine (water pre-soaked chips are lower in astringent tannins). All these factors impact the characteristics of the wine. Toasting the oak chips gives the chips a smoky, caramel flavor. Due to having a greater surface area, smaller oak chips give more oak characteristics per unit weight added. Oak shavings are another alternative that provides an even larger surface area per pound. Finely shaved oak or oak tobacco is used in fermentation or in dry white wines with a rapid uptake.

Another form of oak alternative similar to oak chips are oak tablets. This is essentially oak pellets that are most commonly used in table wine either during fermentation or afterwards. This method also has a rapid uptake. Oak dusts or powders are less commonly used than oak chips. Oak powders are often added to the fermenting wine in order to introduce oak characteristics to the wine early on. They are most commonly used with red wines that still have skins. The use of these dusts/powders is beneficial to the winemaker as the oak characteristic is a rapid uptake. The addition of oak powders decreases the amount of organosulfur compounds such as merccaptans (associated with unpleasant odors) contained in the wine contributing to a more fruity characteristic.

Another method of oaking wine is accomplished by inserting oak planks or staves into a stainless steel tanks. Oak planks can be added vertically to the tank, or shorter staves can be added to the bottom of the tank. Either option is cost effective and produces good yields of quality wine. These oak alternatives are added to the tank as the wine undergoes temperature controlled fermentation producing a fruity oak characteristic. Another benefit of this method is that the planks or staves can be removed after desired characteristics have been achieved, then dried and used again. Oak dominoes and cubes are similar to oak planks.
Phil Burton, owner of Barrel Builders in Napa Valley, California is a barrel enthusiast. His company has been supplying the Napa Valley and beyond with high quality oak barrels for 40 years. Barrel Builders provides wine makers with a variety of tools to create a great oaked wine product including oak alternatives in addition to his wine barrels. Mr. Burton puts it very simply when he states that “the bottom line is that adjuncts won’t replace barrels anytime soon. There’s a complex interplay between oak and slow barrel aging that can’t be replicated with adjuncts even with micro-ox and other interventions; that’s one reason that high-end wines are still barrel aged.” Like the Barrel Builder’s website says, in a perfect world cooperage choices would be based on flavor alone. However with the cost of high end French oak prices raising 20% again this year, oak alternatives become more desirable for wine makers selling a product that sells at a lower price point. The raising cost of French oak is in part due to it’s planting cycle. It takes 100 years to cultivate the trees needed for cooperage. There is also a lot of wasted wood while preparing planks to produce barrels.

Mr. Burton acknowledges that adjuncts have advantages. “First, they’re cheap- you can oak a wine for a couple of dollars while a good quality French oak barrel is almost $1000. Second, they’re quick- depending on the wine and the type of adjunct used, you can get oak character in a matter of weeks as opposed to many months in a barrel. Third, the amount of adjuncts used can easily be adjusted- want a little more oak? Just add more chips.” There is no doubt that oak alternatives are a convenient substitute to utilizing oak barrels, however oak barrels provide additional benefits. “A barrel does three things. First, it’s a container and the typical barrel holds about 60 gallons. Second, there’s a slow transpiration or breathing though the wood, which matures and ages a wine; something that doesn’t happen in a stainless steel tank. With care, a barrel will fill these functions for many years; in some parts of the world a barrel isn’t considered prime until it’s 20 or more years old. The third attribute- the leaching of oak components into a wine- is what all this is about. After three or four years, the surface layers of the barrel have been leached out and you’d have to leave the wine in the barrel so long to get some oak character that it doesn’t make economic sense.”

There is the option to re-use these high cost barrels. According to Mr. Burton “Most wineries making high-end wines will have some new barrels, some one-fill (one use) barrels and some older barrels- say, replacing a third or a quarter of their barrels annually. This way, a winemaker can tweak her blend with some wine from the new barrels, which may be a little too oaky with some wine from older barrels to balance the final product.”

Ultimately, the buying power of the consumers will dictate how wine is produced in the future. Wine enthusiasts like Mia Smith-Coles prefer wines fermented in oak barrels. Mrs. Smith-Coles states “ I prefer the fuller flavor of chardonnay fermented in oak barrels. The oak barrel allows oxygenation without spoiling. This also makes the tannins softer. You end up with a smoky flavor, sometimes vanilla or caramel like. I also like some wines that are placed in oak after fermentation like Seyval Blanc because you get a light crisp oaky flavor”. Mrs. Smith-Coles and other wine enthusiasts and wine purists are willing to pay a little more for the characteristics that they desire. Because Mr. Burton is completely right when he stated that “.. adjuncts won’t replace barrels anytime soon…”.