Winemakers use oak alternatives

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SB Ranch

Senior Member
Jun 12, 2007
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<H3 ="sans">How real but anonymous winemakers use oak alternatives</H3>
<DIV ="spaceV8">by Tyler Thomas
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<LI>When price-point and volume financially prohibit new oak barrels, how should a winemaker utilize oak alternatives?
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<LI>Alternatives vary by the speed of extraction required. The faster the need for flavor infusion, the smaller the product needed.
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<LI>Larger oak staves fitted to stainless tanks, and barrel stave inserts provide the most analogous result to oak barrels. </LI>[/list]My first exposure to oak alternatives outside of my kitchen and carboys was not positive. As a cellar rat working daily 12-hour swing shifts for six weeks, I learned to value efficiency. But welders occupied several white fermenting tanks during the entire harvest while installing fixtures for oak staves. Remembering all the double-checks in a cellar is hard enough; making sure no one was welding inside a tank before racking into it seemed a bit excessive. But let's not let a little construction delay hinder an examination of how winemakers use the myriad of oak alternatives now available.

In winemaking, it is prudent for the first question to be, "Is it necessary?" Perhaps shortly followed by, "How much?" It seems well accepted that oak barrels remain the pre-eminent method for integrating oak components (flavor, structure) into wine. However, it is equally apparent that oak in general enhances the complexity and enjoyment of our favorite beverage. So when the price-point and volume of the wine financially prohibit the use of new oak barrels, what type, when and how should a winemaker utilize oak alternatives?

Well, it depends. Almost all the oak alternatives could be used at each of the major stages of processing: alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, aging and just before bottling. Additionally, each winemaker may have goals dependent on different style preferences, wine types and desired flavors.

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This array of small barrel alternatives from Aftek displays adjuncts most commonly used during fermentation.Winemakers' experiences

The bottom line is that the winemaker's goal is to make the best wine possible within the parameters set for him or her. One winemaker among a dozen I consulted noted, "I would rather spend more dollars on quality grapes first, and oak afterward." The purpose here is to offer a glimpse into how some professionals utilize these products throughout the course of making wine.

Oak powder, granulates (mixture, pellets) and even chips are often used during fermentation. Many people use dust at the crusher for red wines. The primary purpose is to provide tannin for stabilizing color, and powder ensures that it will not disrupt the processing stream (i.e. pumps). Granulates, chips and cubes are also often used during red fermentation, generally dosed by adding pre-measured bags to the fermenters.

If color improvement is the goal, winemakers recommend that effective trials be performed, as the gain in color, while real, is often minimal, and therefore its efficacy (i.e., cost benefit) really should be evaluated.

If incorporating oak aromatics at the fermentation stage is less important than tannin extraction and color stability, then seasoned, untoasted chips could be considered as a cost effective tool. Despite common perception, correctly dosed untoasted wood will not impart green flavors or harsh tannins, and its use to improve structure may be warranted.

The toasting process reduces the amount of ellagitannins available for extraction. Normally, this is not a problem in new oak barrels--or even staves for that matter--because longer-term aging will eventually draw tannins from deeper in the wood. However, if the wine is to be exposed to oak for a shorter amount of time with the intent of adding structure from ellagitannins, small untoasted oak could provide more tannin.

Conversely, note that one clever study regarding ellagitannin impact on mouthfeel demonstrated that separating oak aroma from wine significantly increased the sensory threshold for ellagitannin in wine. This indicates that aroma provides an important cue to informing a taster that the wine has more structure (real or perceived), and suggests some incorporation of oak aromas can be critical for improving the fullness of a wine.

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Innerstave chipsDuring fermentation<BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold"><BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold">While the mechanism is not entirely understood, using oak during white fermentations generally results in better integration of overall wood character. There are a few aromatic compounds derived from wood hypothesized to be altered by yeast and bacteria. Additionally, yeast hulls can bind the tannin extracted from oak.

One winemaker at a 50,000-case facility, who has worked with alternatives in red and white wine for six years, commented that for white wine ferments: "the larger the oak the better." The idea here is that oak staves or tank inserts are slightly more predictable, closely resembling the inner surface of a barrel, in contrast to chips or powder, where calculating surface area to volume ratios is much more challenging. Adding back fine lees during aging will enhance the perception of barrel fermentation.

The drawback with tank staves is the extraction time. While "larger is better" might work for some, extraction is slower. If wine or tank turnover is needed quickly, or tanks are not retrofitted for stave insertion, utilizing chips in white wine fermentation is a valuable tool. It will be important to consider a cautious method of stirring to ensure good contact of all the wine with the chips without creating a foaming tank volcano, which happened to me in New Zealand. This could be achieved with slow pumping-over without air to mix, or even utilizing a tank mixer such as a Guth, turning it on for only short periods of time. Always watch the top of the tank.
During malolactic<BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold"><BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold">That malolactic fermentation in barrel changes the character of red and white wine is broadly assumed, but calling it an improvement in quality is apparently debatable. If paralleling barrel-fermented white wine is the goal, then certainly ML (if undergone at all) will also be performed with the oak alternative.

However, some winemakers prefer to conduct their red wine ML in barrel, and others in tank. Certainly, conducting ML with oak present will allow the bacteria biomass to interact with oak constituents, whether actively or passively (as noted for yeasts). At the recent Unified Wine &amp; Grape Symposium in Sacramento, well known oak expert Pascal Chatonnet of Bordeaux provided evidence that "toastiness" (associated with a compound not found in oak) specifically increases during ML in the presence of oak. If this decision is to be made, as with alcoholic fermentation, much depends on the speed of extraction desired. Powder is generally not utilized at this stage, but chips, links and staves may be.

Once fermentations are complete, the winemaker will determine the best complementing flavors for the wine in question. Again, the type of alternative is largely a function of the speed of extraction required. How soon is the wine to be bottled? The faster the need for flavor infusion, the smaller the product needed.

Many winemakers, including one who uses stave inserts for Sonoma Chardonnay, suggest that quick extraction is more of a "flash in the pan" approach, and isn't likely to improve the wine in the long term. Once again, the consensus is that larger oak staves fitted to stainless tanks, and barrel stave inserts provide the most analogous result to aging wine in oak barrels.

With micro-oxygenation<BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold"><BR style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold">Another practice that is often employed coincidentally with oak alternatives in tank is micro-oxygenation. An entire article could be dedicated to micro-oxygenation and its coupling with oak alternatives. It is not the purpose here to judge the merits of the practice. Some swear by its use, others scoff. The literature seems to support this diversity of perspectives with conflicting results. If micro-ox is to be utilized, the type of alternative does not seem to be a consideration. All will provide oak extractives that are deemed worthy candidates for oxidizing.

A final situation where alternatives may be useful is when a wine is nearing bottling. A winemaker may find that despite efforts to integrate oak throughout the process, the wine simply could use a little more perceived structure and improved aromatics. Close to bottling, larger staves' slow extraction will prohibit their use, and powder's mess could provide a headache; leaving chips, or some other small alternative, as the primary options.

While oak alternatives have drawbacks from a winemaking perspective, perhaps the most significant is in marketing. Rarely are wines marketed on their brilliant use of oak alternatives so that the future imbiber can enjoy better quality at a lower price. After all, a recent study clearly demonstrated a top-down effect that knowledge of price has in mentally improving the quality perception. I submit that knowledge of fermenting/aging in oak barrels versus oak alternatives would have the same effect. Furthermore, the reader should note that not one winemaker with whom I spoke wanted to be cited in this article by name. What further evidence is needed that oak in anything but barrel form still has a public relations problem?

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<TD>Pitfalls in oak alternatives
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<LI>Erring on the side of under-dosing is most prudent. A winemaker relayed his experience when managing a cellar in Australia for an 80,000-case facility: "When used in excess, they can easily overpower a medium-bodied wine, leaving harsh, unintegrated, and drying oak character."
<LI>If using larger oak pieces in fermentations, remove them prior to pumping to prevent damaging your equipment. Obvious, but important.
<LI>One winemaker noted these surmountable concerns with staves: "initial time to install staves, proper settling/racking so staves are not coated in lees during extraction, and waste disposal."
<LI>When contemplating using oak alternatives near bottling, it's critical to run trials first. Over-oaking will be difficult to correct after the final blend, as one disgruntled winemaker realized. He had to scramble to find 1,000 gallons of a less-oaky wine to blend into his now too-oaky wine. </LI>[/list]</TD></TR></T></T></T></T></TABLE>

Tyler Thomas is assistant winemaker at Hyde de Villaine Wines in Napa, Calif.
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<DIV ="contentDisplayableWidth">View Oak Alternatives Suppliers &amp; Offerings Edited by: SBRanch
Thanks for the post, SB. I just happens to coincide with my query about oaking on this forum!

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