April 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines

Eight Questions About Oak Products

Winemakers cater oak type to their wines

by Andrew Adams
CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Watch a technician install a set of new oak staves into a neutral barrel in this video provided by oak alternative manufacturer Innerstave.

The range for oak alternatives has grown dramatically in recent years, and winemakers now can choose from a wide variety of products. But what is the best way to pick between oak chips, rice or powders, and what’s the difference between a block, domino, cube, bullet or bean?

“It’s kind of like herding cats,” laughed Rick DeFerrari of Oregon Barrel Works. “It’s subjective to what people are looking for, what people want.”

Wines & Vines spoke with oak suppliers to gain insights into what types of adjuncts and additives are on the market and how they best match each stage of the winemaking process.

1. What’s the range of oak products?
“Generally speaking, the larger formats are for aging and the smaller formats for fermentation, but this varies from winemaker to winemaker,” said Attila C. Oross, principal sales specialist for Quercus Concepts Inc.’s Quercus and Arobois oak alternative lines.

Oak now comes from powders with particles smaller than 0.15 mm to heavy staves several feet long and 18 mm thick, designed to hang inside fermentation tanks. The powders and small chips are for use from crush through primary fermentation and designed to integrate with the must. Several suppliers claim the material can be introduced at the crush pad through the must pump or with a pump in the cellar. Once fermentation is complete, the oak is left with the pomace (shoveled out, pressed and tossed with the rest of waste), as the powders and small chips are too tiny to separate from the fermented fruit.

Mid-range oak alternatives are known by varying names such as cubes, blocks, dominos, bullets, beans and larger chips. These products usually come bundled in mesh “flow through” bags that make it easier to add the chips to tanks and then remove them after wine has been racked out.

The largest oak products are barrel inserts and staves. The barrel inserts can either be installed on the inner surface of the barrel or come as thick sticks of oak linked together by synthetic cord. These latter are known as oak sausage links, oak chains or chaplets. The inserts are linked to a synthetic bung to allow for easy retrieval. Tank staves come as fan systems bundled together and then zip tied to a stainless steel wire welded to the inside of tanks or hung on racks.

Just as they do with barrels, oak suppliers provide a full range of toasts from untoasted to heavy and even custom toast blends for specific flavor profiles. “We offer French and American oak in various toasts,” said Marion Blanchet Ghiringhelli, Nadalie USA’s Oak Add Ins business development manager. She added that the company offers “the standard (toasts such as) LT, MT, MT+, HT—but also other toasts like ‘Noisette’ or ‘Special,’ which bring different aromatic profiles.”

2. Are there products specific to each stage of winemaking?
Michael Peters, U.S. sales manager for the Chilean cooperage Mistral, said he recommends the company’s oak powder and rice for fermentation. “The staves and blocks are mostly used for aging and finishing wines, however we do have customers who will use blocks and staves during fermentation with incredible results,” he said. “We also recommend the toasting level at each stage for each product.”

Smaller products have quicker extraction rates and are better suited for wines at lower price points with a quicker turnaround. Barrel inserts and staves have slower extraction rates but deliver a wider spectrum of oak flavors, so they are considered to be best reserved for longer aging and fining. “Oak products can be added from the beginning of the process for the wine to be ready early, or in several adjunctions to build more complex profiles,” said Cyril Derreumaux, general manager for Vivelys USA, which produces the Boise’ line of French oak chips that come in a wide variety of toast options.

Early in the winemaking process, untoasted or lightly toasted products can help set tannin structure, and suppliers claim they improve color through co-pigmentation and mask the vegetal characteristics of pyrazines. “It’s the most bargain-priced way to get oak into a wine,” said Phil Burton, owner of Barrel Builders Inc., which sells inserts, staves and chips. He added, however, that he believes there’s less integration of the oak when just using chips.

Burton said he’s been selling barrel inserts for at least 30 years and that winemakers should not be daunted by the vast array of products on the market these days. “Everybody needs a hook, but frankly I think the differences are pretty minimal.”

The Barrel Mill produces spiral inserts that sales manager Len Napolitano said are primarily used for aging. He added that they also can give wine a boost of oak flavor for finishing even after traditional barrel aging. “Sometimes a wine needs a little more oak, but another year—or just a few months—(of aging) in barrel is not feasible,” he said. “Because the oak spirals are done extracting virtually all flavors in six weeks, it is perfect for situations like that.”

3. What’s best to use with micro-oxygenation?
When using a micro-oxygenation system, a winemaker is often trying to replicate barrel aging in the tank without the barrels. The best fit for such systems are the larger alternatives such as bags of blocks or staves.

Napolitano, with The Barrel Mill, said the company offers bags of 48-inch-long spirals that can deliver 25%-30% new oak per 1,000 gallons of wine. He added that a micro-ox system could improve integration.

Most other suppliers also recommended staves or bags of larger alternatives like dominos or blocks. The advantage of the bagged products with micro-oxygenation is that a winemaker can taste through the aging process and remove the bags once the right flavor profile or level of oak has been achieved. And, as always, each person’s use of micro-oxygenation is different.

“The relevance of interaction with micro-oxygenation depends on the objective of the winemaker (wine profile) and the starting point,” Derreumaux said, noting the original type of wine and its characteristics such as tannins, color, turbidity, temperature control capacities and time.

Alicia McBride, general manager of Innerstave, said that all of the products offered by her company work with micro-ox; the selection just depends on how much time the winemaker has for oak extraction.

4. How do you find the right oak product?
“First the winemakers should have a clear idea of what wine profile they are reaching for,” Derreumaux said. “Then they must look at budget, time, workforce. Having identified the base matrix of the wine and the aim to reach, they can look at the various suppliers of oak, their expertise, their formats.”

Vivelys also offers trial kits containing small bags of oak chips to soak in wine for at least two months. “Our protocol is based on our in-house research and works very well.” (See “Benching Oak Barrel Alternatives” in Wines & Vines’ April 2011 issue.)

Oregon Barrel Works’ DeFarrari said that when he’s working with a new client he’ll send an assortment of chips of various toasts and types so the client can run bench-top trials to find the product that’s right for the specific wine. “With adjuncts, what people are looking for is more bang for their buck, more oak flavor for their dollar,” he said. “Usually you have a wine in mind, and I think it really works well to do a quick bench trial, and I think they can figure out pretty quickly what it can give the wine.”

Martin J. McCarthy, sales and marketing manager for Radoux Barrels and Pronektar Oak Alternatives, said the key factor for finding the right oak alternative is how long a winemaker wants to commit to aging his or her wine. “What kind of time do you have available? Narrow down the window with what you think works, and then make sure you’re absolutely happy,” he said.

Oak Solutions Group, the alternatives arm of Independent Stave Co., offers a full range of products said assistant director of sales Kyle Sullivan. He said when he’s working with a new client he first finds out how he or she already uses oak, then suggests alternatives that will fit the client’s program. “What it comes down to is working one-on-one with the winemaker,” he said. Sullivan also said it’s key to take advantage of trial kits, because often the best strategy for alternatives is using a mix of different products.

“We can recommend which oak product is right for each stage based on the goals the winemaker is trying to achieve and the amount of time they have to achieve those goals,” said Innerstave’s McBride. “Toast levels are based on winemaker preference of the flavor profiles they are looking for.”

5. What about storage and reuse?
Oak additions should be treated with care and stored in a clean, dry warehouse and in the original packaging. Most suppliers don’t recommend reuse for their products. “Reuse is impossible,” Derreumaux said of his Vivelys products.

Mistral’s Peters said the TechStaves line of oak could be reused since the staves aren’t designed to leave the tank and are considered compatible with clean-in-place systems. Smaller products, Peters said, should be used just once.  “We do not recommend reuse because of the associated risks once the product is removed. The risk of (microbial) contamination can be very high.”

Nicholas Keller, the U.S. representative for Tonnellerie Allary, said reuse is possible with thick staves, but the results are not the same, and so he does not recommend it. “If you have a thicker stave it is possible, but the wine never penetrates the heart of the stave properly.”

Sullivan from Oak Solutions said reuse is possible, but the return of extraction will be much diminished during subsequent uses. He said products should get a good cleaning with methods similar to cleaning barrels.

6. What is the right amount to use?
Burton said a general rule for dosage is about 15 to 20 pounds of alternatives per 1,000 gallons of wine.  Each supplier has its own recommendation, but for smaller oak products the range is 10-25 pounds per 1,000 gallons of wine. The range depends on the size of the alternatives to the toast.

How much oak to use also depends on how much aging time is available. Quicker results require a higher amount of oak added earlier. Barrel inserts are generally recommended on a one-set-per-barrel basis, although some companies provide systems that allow for incremental increases of oak. The number of staves can be calculated on a square-foot-to-gallon ratio, or on the number of stave sets to gallon ratio.

Oak Solutions, StaVin and other suppliers offer online calculators to help winemakers determine how much of a certain product they need for their winemaking style.

7. Are certain products best used for specific varietals?
None of the suppliers interviewed said they made specific products to match certain types of wine. They stressed that the products can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of wines. The French oak tank staves that can be used to flavor and age Merlot could conversely be used during primary fermentation for Chardonnay. “Since each varietal can have several matrix (and) wine profiles, and the winemakers have distinct final objectives, there is for us no perfect mix of oak,” Derreumaux said.

Sullivan said that regional differences in winemaking styles make marketing varietal-specific products a bit tricky, but Oak Solutions does offer its “Latitude” series of tank staves. These include the 44 Bordeaux, 45 Rhone and 46 Burgundy staves, which offer some specificity for the winemaker wanting to craft a wine within a certain style.

Seguin Moreau’s sales manager, Chris Hansen, said it’s not that oak alternatives are designed for specific wines but that winemakers can use the products in different ways for specific wines. He said, for example, that someone making Sauvignon Blanc could add barrel inserts to neutral barrels and be able to adjust the desired level of oak. For a light touch of oak the winemaker can leave the inserts in for a short time—or keep them in longer for more of an oak presence.

8. What are some specialized or new oak alternatives?
Some suppliers have developed even more specialized alternative products such as Innerstave’s “Binsert,” which is a set of linked staves supported by a stainless steel base designed to fit into a MacroBin. The frame accommodates punch downs and enables winemakers to perform upright, open-top barrel fermentations without the barrel.

StaVin offers the “infusion tube,” which is a slender, perforated, stainless steel tube that can be filled with several ounces of oak cubes and sealed with a synthetic bung. The tube slides right through the bunghole and allows the winemaker to add incremental dosages of oak to wine over time. According to StaVin product information, three, 8-ounce loads of cubes soaking for a least two month each can impart the same level of oak as a new barrel.

Oak Solutions has introduced a new type of stave to its Cuvée line that features grooves. Sullivan said the grooves create differences in the toasting of the wood, leading to a “gradient” effect of toasted flavors imparted to the wine.

Hansen said Seguin Moreau produces an 18 mm stave, which he said is thicker than most staves and blends seamlessly into the wine. “We found that we got a much more elegant result with the thicker piece of wood, with less of the woody tannins that winemakers complain they get from tank staves.”

While the diversity of oak alternative products could almost seem daunting, the benefit is that there’s an oak barrel alternative product for every winemaking style. Wood quality also has improved—and if you have a favorite cooper, there’s a good chance that company is also producing oak alternatives with woods and toasts similar to its barrels.


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