<A name=Feature></A>I would like to commend Joesph for this excellent article he wrote for this month's newsletter. This took a lot effort on his part and I really learned much more about using Oak cubes and the effect on has on a finished wine.
I would say this is one of the best newsletter articles to date!!!
Thank You for your effort and sharing this with us.
FEATURED ARTICLE - CAN ADDING OAK IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF YOUR KIT WINE?
Most of us have read that different types of oak will impart different characteristics to a wine. Reading however is not the same as tasting. To taste the differences for myself and to find which type of oak I prefer, I decided to conduct a side-by-side comparison of readily available oak types. My experiment was in part inspired by James Alexanders article Oak Cubes: An Alternative to Barrels which appeared in the February-March 2004 issue of WineMaker and several discussions with George Cornelius.
For the wine, I chose the Winexpert Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. The kit was made according to instructions including the addition of oak chips during primary fermentation. My only departure from the instructions was at step 5:Bottling. Instead of bottling, the wine was racked and allowed to age on oak before bottling.
For the oak, I used the StaVin oak cubes packaged by L.D. Carlson. StaVin makes their cubes from 3-year air-dried oak. The longer the wood is air dried the more subtle the flavors imparted to the wine. They import their oak from France and Hungary and the American oak is from Missouri and Minnesota. The oak is toasted and then cut into cubes.
There are three grades of toasting: Medium, House and Heavy. In addition to the source of oak, the level of toasting also adds to the flavor and bouquet of the wine. Since I have not experimented with the level of toasting, its impact on bouquet and flavor comes from what I have read and not my taste buds. Medium Toast will impart more vanilla overtones than the other levels of toasting and allows more of the fruit to show. The House Toast is darker than the medium and has overtones of honey and toasted bread with a hint of coffee. The Heavy Toast provides more caramel and pronounced coffee overtones.
For my experiment, I chose the French, Hungarian and American oak cubes with the medium toast.
To obtain the equivalent of new barrel extraction, StaVin recommends using 2.0 to 2.5 ounces of cubes for a 5-gallon carboy. The recommended minimum contact time is 8 weeks and the cubes have a useful life of about 12 months. I have read that the softer flavors obtained from 2 3 years barrel aging require at least 4 6 months contact with the cubes.
StaVin packages their cubes in a poly-metal barrier bag to seal in flavors and aromas and to provide sanitary conditions. Since the cubes I used were repackaged and I dont know the conditions or processes used, I did a quick rinse of the cubes in a sulfite solution before use. StaVin recommends that the cubes not be soaked since some of the flavor will be extracted into the soaking solution and discarded.
After the wine was clear and stable, it was racked to five 4-liter jugs containing about 40ppm of metabisulfite (this is roughly equal to ¼ teaspoon in 6 gallons). To each of three jugs I added the selected oak cubes at the rate of ½ ounce per gallon. The remaining jugs contained no oak addition and were used as a reference and for top up if necessary. The wine was allowed to age on oak for 10 weeks. I had enough patience to wait more than the minimum 8 weeks, but not enough to wait longer than 10.
At bottling, each wine was racked from the cubes and any sediment formed during aging into a clean and sanitized 4-liter jug. This racking also ensured a thorough mixing of the oak essence. Since wine bottled in small bottles ages faster than wine in large bottles, 375 ml bottles were selected to allow for faster bottle aging (that patience thing again).
There was an initial tasting after three months of bottle aging and a subsequent tasting after six months in the bottle. The objectives of the tasting were to determine what the oak contributed to the wine and to determine any preference for oak type. The wines were tasted in the following order: No oak added, French, Hungarian and American.
On several forums I have read that adding oak will increase the body of the wine. Both visually and in terms of mouth feel, I noted no difference in the body. In my opinion, aging in an oak barrel will increase the body of the wine, aging on oak cubes will not. This is because the evaporation and concentration of the wine that occurs in the barrel does not occur during the short period the wine is in a glass carboy.
When the bottle of no oak added Cabernet was opened, it immediately filled the room with its fruity aroma. This may have clouded my judgment on the intensity of the aroma of the oak added samples. I did note that the black cherry and berry aromas were significantly more pronounced in the oak added samples compared to the no oak added sample. My untrained nose was unable to detect any vanilla or spice overtones in the bouquet.
On tasting the wine, the differences were very noticeable. The wines with oak added had more intense fruit flavors and a longer finish than the wine with no oak added. The French oak was very smooth and had some slight chocolate overtones. The American oak had a more aggressive oak taste and contained more tannin. This made it slightly more astringent than the others, though it was not excessive. The American oak also showed some notes of spice. The Hungarian oak was not as smooth as the French and not as assertive as the American.
Time in the bottle does make a difference. The wines at six months had better bouquet and taste than they had at three months. The most significant improvement was in the wine with Hungarian oak. At three months, the addition of Hungarian oak detracted from the wine and it was not as good as the wine with no additional oak. At six months it showed improved aroma and taste.
Some of the tasters preferred the smoother, rounder wine containing the French oak. Other tasters preferred the more forward oak and tannin in the wine containing the American oak. All tasters did agree that the addition of either the French or American oak were an improvement over the no additional oak added wine.
I was a little disappointed in the Hungarian oak. I believe this was due to my expectation that it would be very similar to the French oak and therefore a less expensive alternative (possible bias on the part of this taster). Also, none of the tasters expressed a preference for this wine. I believe it suffered in the comparison because it was in the middle, not as smooth as the French and not as assertive as the American. In a side-by-side comparison with only the no oak added wine it would likely have shown better. In a few months, I will open a bottle and find out.
From this experiment I learned that oak cubes significantly improve the bouquet and taste of a kit wine. I have also experienced the contributions that the different types of oak can make. Although I was concerned about ending up with a wine containing too much oak, this did not happen. Using the recommended ½ ounce of cubes per gallon enhanced the wine and did not overpower it.
My personal preference was for the medium toast French oak in this Cabernet kit. Had the kit been a Merlot or Shiraz or Zinfandel, my preference may have been different. There are many potential experiments with different types of oak, different oak toasts and different blends of type and toast. The problem is that patience thing; its so long between start and taste. Oh well, on to the next experiment.
This article was written by Joseph Schuitema. For his efforts, he received a $100 gift certificate from Fine Vine Wines. You too, can receive a $100 gift certificate. Just send us an article we can use in our monthly newsletter and the gift certificate is yours.