April 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Viagra for Barrels

How oak alternatives bring new life to old barrels, add texture in fermentation and spice up neutral tanks

by Paul Franson
Viagra for Barrels
A Barrel Builders cooper inserts new staves into a used barrel, to restore its useful life.

  • New barrel alternatives are becoming increasingly popular among boutique wineries.
  • Alternatives include using the barrels longer and/or having the interiors shaved and re-toasted.
  • Oak adjuncts are available for use during fermentation and for insertion into older barrels or neutral tanks.
Primarily the province of large wineries that for many years have added oak staves to steel tanks to emulate the flavors of oak barrels, "oak alternatives"--really "new barrel alternatives"--now are becoming increasingly popular among boutique wineries.

Part of the reason is cost: French oak barrels were already expensive before the run-up in the euro made them increasingly impractical for many American wineries (see Wines & Vines February 2008). Winemakers have responded by: using more of the cheaper American and Central European barrels; taking advantage of the consumer trend toward less "oaky" wines; but especially by adopting alternatives to new barrels.

The alternatives to new oak barrels include simply using the barrels longer, which reduces oak flavors while maintaining the barrels' other subtle impacts; having the interior of barrels shaved and re-toasted, which largely restores the new barrel flavors; or blasting them clean with a high pressure spray of dry ice.

View Oak Alternatives Suppliers & Offerings

"Barrel alternatives" is a broad term for ways to add oak flavors to wine. These alternatives (also sometimes called "adjuncts") generally fall into three categories: powders and chips used to enhance flavors, mouthfeel and structure during fermentation; oak products inserted in old, neutral barrels to restore their youth; and staves, chips and blocks designed for use in stainless steel and other neutral tanks.

Viagra for Barrels
Bagged oak spirals from Barrel Mill provide more surface area, hence faster extraction, and can be removed with a pull of the bung.
Of course, oak flavors aren't the only reason for using barrels. These include enhancing mouthfeel and reducing raw tannins during white wine fermentation, and subtle micro-oxygenation during aging. As a consequence, most winemakers who are using oak staves in stainless tanks instead of barrels are also trying mechanical micro-oxygenation or even primitive methods to add oxygen to the wine, such as splashing the wine during tank operations.

Barrel alternatives are less expensive than barrels, because less skilled labor is required, and also because they are generally made from oak unsuitable for barrel staves, or staves rejected during barrel building. The wood can be from any of the sources used for barrels, and can be toasted to any level desired to enhance various flavors.

Just as many winemakers prefer not to talk about their use of alternatives in the romantic wine business, many barrel companies have adopted distinctive brand names or even established different companies to produce these products. Nevertheless, there's little question that barrel alternatives make wine more affordable--and there's much anecdotal evidence that, used properly, they can produce wines as good as those made by traditional processes.

They even have some unique benefits. Oak powder and small chips can be used in fermentation--including for red wine, normally impractical in barrels. And because the wood doesn't have to be structural as in barrels, it can be more heavily toasted for unique flavors, or grooved for additional surface exposure.

Fine oak powder is intended for fermentation, while chips and small "beans" are used in both fermentation and aging. Larger pieces of toasted wood are used in barrels and tanks.



During fermentation, small-format barrel alternatives such as powder, flour, chips or beans are useful for adding tannin structure and mouthfeel, and stabilizing color in red wines.
Oak powder or flour, and small chips and small-cut blocks or beans are most appropriate during fermentation. Lightly toasted or even untoasted, they add tannin structure from the oak, while increasing perceived mouthfeel and softness due to heightened polymerization of grape and oak tannins. They also contribute a sense of sweetness from the vanillin in the wood, and can enhance the fruit character in the wine.

In some cases, these forms of oak provide a function impractical with barrels, including adding oak to red wine fermentation. The oak helps stabilize color in red wines.

Arôbois recommends 4 to 16 pounds per 1,000 gallons of its powder be added during the fermentation or before bottling. It is discarded with the pomace or lees.

Small chips have a similar impact, and can also be used for aging. Arôbois recommends a rate of 8 to 32 pounds per 1,000 gallons for about three weeks.

StaVin and some other suppliers prefer cut "beans" to naturally split chips. The company says these beans provide a more refined flavor. They also provide slower extraction of flavor than chips or powder, so are also useful for aging wines. The suppliers enclose the beans in mesh bags weighing 20 pounds, which can be inserted into fermentation tanks and re-used immediately for fermenting other wines.

StaVin offers American, French and Hungarian oak in medium, medium-plus or heavy toasting over traditional fire. The StaVin bags cost $220 for American oak, $280 for Hungarian and $360 for French oak bags suitable for aging the equivalent of about 13 barrels (700 gallons).

StaVin also offers cheaper Savour oak chips for fermentation, toasted in convection ovens at $75 for a 15-pound bag in American oak, $90 in Hungarian and $105 in French oak. It recommends 1 to 6 pounds for every ton of grapes.

Innerstave also has a line of powder and chips it calls Oakplus by Innerstave. It supplies them from French and American oak seasoned outdoors for at least 24 months, and uses convection ovens for toasting. It offers medium toast and medium-plus.

Innerstave says the chips are suitable for all phases of winemaking, and recommends 10 to 15 pounds per 1,000 gallons for red wine fermentation; 4 to 17 pounds for white wine fermentation; 12-14 pounds for unfiltered red wine, 2-14 for unfiltered whites; 8-12 pounds for clarified wine and 4 to 8 pounds for pre-bottling.

It recommends its oak "flour" for fermentation of red wines at 2.5 pounds per ton of grapes. Both chips and flour are shipped in 22-pound bags, but the chips can be supplied in mesh bags.

Trial Kits

If you'd like to try the alternatives, suppliers can obviously offer samples. Perhaps the most comprehensive is evOAK, which has kits with miniature stakes of different types and toasts, and other products you can insert in bottles of wine to taste the impact of the oak. As an example, the specialty oak chips sample kit contains six test tubes containing different types of chips. Simply add one sample to a 750ml bottle of wine and wait three days to test the results. The company also has kits of high extract infusion staves, cuvée-series tank staves, classic tank staves and oak chips and powder.

evOAK, the company formed by World Cooperage to sell barrel alternatives, offers a full line of oak products including powder and chips. It claims that its toasted oak powder enhances overall wine quality without imparting oak character. The company says it is designed for use prior to barrel aging to remove vegetal characteristics. It recommends 20 pounds per 1,000 gallons of wine during fermentation for two to five days. The powder is discarded with the pomace and lees. It can't be reused.

evOAK also offers classic oak chips; others with high levels of vanilla, and premium dark roasted oak chips for use in fermentation (as well as aging). The vanilla chips have three times the vanillin of conventional chips, while the dark-roasted chips have enhanced levels of oak tannin, hmf, 5-methyl furfural (creamier caramelized sugars), vanillin and 4-methyl guaiacol (spiciness) with lower levels of guaiacol (smoke). The company recommends 10 to 20 pounds per 1,000 gallons for fermentation.

Pronektar is another suppliers of powder, granulates, chips and anhydrous (dried but untoasted) chips for white wines. Boisé supplies a variety of chips including untoasted chips (bois frais) and mixed toasted chips. Tonnelerie Allary, O.C. Inc. and LaGlasse also supply chips (and staves).



For aging wines, older barrels may be restored, or staves can be inserted by a cooper to revive newer oak flavor, and function.
For oak alternatives to install in barrels, the primary considerations are mechanical. One approach to renewing barrels is to have a cooper remove one end of the barrel, then shave or plane the interior surface to expose new wood, then toast it.

ReCoop, Inc., for example, says it planes a quarter inch off the interior of used barrels, then toasts them. Its latest price list quotes $140 to process your red wine barrel, $185 for a barrel they've prepared. ReCoop will also install new oak stave inserts in the barrels for about $75, in quantity.

StaVin sells barrel inserts that must be installed by a cooper. They require a $10 ring, then a stave set. The fire-toasted StaVin products cost $56 for American oak to $68 for French for new oak barrel levels; concentrated levels cost a bit more.

The convection-toasted Savour versions cost less: $47.50 to $61.50. Various woods and toast levels are available, so the inserts can in effect convert a neutral American barrel to a "new" French one at a fraction of the cost.

evOAK also offers oak barrel inserts, and like StaVin, will supply coopers to install them on site. It toasts in four ways: convection, infrared, double or fire, each with different profiles. The costs are typically $44 to $52 per system of an American oak barrel renewal kit, $52 to $59 of French oak.

Viagra for Barrels
An Innerstave fan of staves provides easy insertion and removal.
Innerstave's barrel inserts come in French and American oak, with either medium or medium-plus toasting. The company claims that one insert offers 90% of the surface area of a conventional 225-liter barrel. They contain 20 pieces, 28 inches long, 2 inches wide and five-sixteenths inch thick.

While barrel inserts are perhaps closest in concept to new barrels, and allow the barrels to be treated much like regular barrels, the focus of most alternative suppliers is on formats that can fit through the bunghole. Some have some up with clever schemes.

The most common solution is small oak sticks chained together for easy insertion through the barrel's bunghole. Innerstave claims that its Chain of Oak provides 30% of the wood surface area of a barrel. Its 17 pieces are each 12 inches long, 1.5 inches wide and five-sixteenths inch thick. They come with food-grade plastic ties and a grommet to fasten the chain to the bung for removal.

StaVin uses 30 17.5-inch staves, each 1 inch wide and three-eighths inch thick, and recommends a minimum aging time of three months. This set promises 100% of a new barrel's flavor; it can be split to provide less oak or for more than one barrel. The StaVin version for American oak is $65; one using French oak is $80. The Savour versions (convection instead of fire roasting) are $56 or $72.

evOAK American Oak Flavoring Stix are $35 to $37.75 per system, and the French oak Flavoring Stix are $40 to $42.75 per system.

Pronektar's Nektar sticks have 24 segments, and the company recommends using them for three to six months.

StaVin produces an infusion tube that can be inserted in the bunghole. It holds 8 ounces of oak cubes, which the company claims is equivalent to about 33% of a new barrel's oak impact. It recommends using for a minimum of two months per load, and the tube can be removed and refilled repeatedly for more oak. The tube is $70, and the 8-ounce pack of cubes is $7.50 (American) to $12.50 (French oak).

Another intriguing system for importing oak into barrels is the Infusion Spiral from the Barrel Mill. The spiral cutting exposes more surface area than standard staves, and the company claims you can capture 100% of new oak flavor in six weeks. The spirals are available in French, Hungarian and American oak, and in a variety of toasting levels. They come encased in a mesh bag that is attached to the bung for easy removal.



Bags of chips, blocks or chunks in neutral tanks can contribute oak flavor and require no special installation.
Though oak alternatives designed to extend the life of expensive barrels are popular with wineries, undoubtedly the biggest application for these staves and beans is as an alternative to barrels. Adding oak in stainless steel tanks contributes oak flavoring and other attributes at a fraction of the cost and labor of using barrels. They've become ubiquitous in less expensive wines.

One simple method of application is to add mesh bags of chips, blocks or chunks to tanks. This is attractive since it requires no special installation, though it could impact barrel operations such as lees stirring.

Innerstave's Bag of Blocks, for example, consists of 22 pounds of 2-inch-wide pieces of oak five-sixteenths inch thick. Innerstave claims one bag is equivalent to 300% of a 225-liter barrel. StaVin specifies 5 pounds per 60 gallons for 100% new barrel impact, and suggests a minimum of three months immersion.

evOAK recommends a dose of one infusion bag of mini infusion staves per 200 gallons at $49 to $59 per pack for American oak, $69 to $79 for French oak.

More permanent set-ups require installing various fixtures such as screws and rings within tanks, to allow the insertion of upright staves around the walls, or stacks of staves in the tank. Innerstave supplies staves in lengths of 80 to 118 inches, 5.5 inches wide and one-half inch thick. They can be used in tanks from 3,000 to 250,000 gallons.

Pronektar recommends two or three of its Nektar staves per hectoliter for white wines, two to four for reds and an aging of three to five months. It offers both conventional staves and "tight grain" versions that release their flavors more slowly, for greater claimed elegance and complexity.

evOAK offers 36-inch staves 2.5 inches wide and three-eighths inch thick in sets for installation around tanks or in "cubes"--stacks in the center of the tank. Both require installation. The supplier recommends one stave per 10 gallons of wine for 100% new barrel flavor.

Typical examples and prices from evOAK are a fan system of 15 staves (approx. 22.5 square feet per system) in American oak for $39 to $47 per system. French oak is $47 to $55 per system.

evOAK American oak tank staves 36 inches by 2.5 inches by 0.375 inches (1.5 square-foot per piece) are sold in packs of 30 at $67.50 to $82.50 per pack. French oak versions are $82.50 to $100.50 per pack.

StaVin produces stacks and staves in a number of configurations, too. It suggests 44-square-feet per 180 gallons for 100% new oak impact. These units are welded to the tank walls or floor, and can be refilled with new staves.

Seguin Moreau supplies its Oenostaves in 37.4-inch lengths, 2 inches wide and 0.28 inch thick. They come packed 100 per package for 117 square feet.

Fine Northern Oak takes an unusual approach to staves, crosscutting them to increase surface area, while other suppliers rout U-shaped grooves in the staves to increase surface area and exposure.

Contribution of Oak to Wine
American Vanilla, coconut lactones
Vanilla, spices, brioche,  fresh almond,  coconut
Maple syrup, toasted almond, hazelnut, sweetness
Toasty, smoky aromas, pepper, coffee, tobacco, sweetness
Roasted, smoky aromas, coffee, sweetness, persistence
Fresh wood, strengthening of structure, stabilization of color
Gentle spices, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, structure, roundness, fat
Vanilla, coffee, chocolate, sweetness, erasing of bitterness and excessive astringency and vegetal character 
Roasted, toasty aromas, coffee, caramel, sweetness, length on the palate
Information is general. Effects vary according to grape variety, applied winemaking and aging, oak species, dose rates and length of contact.
Source: Oenostave by Seguin Moreau     
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