Blind-Tasting a Mini-Stave Trial

Participants in Oak Conference prefer a blend of flavor profiles

by Jim Gordon
Two wines were aged with a variety of oak barrel alternatives for a trial presented at the Wines & Vines Oak Conference.
Napa, Calif.—Winemakers attending the Wines & Vines Oak Conference on Feb. 11 had an unusual opportunity to blind-taste winery trials utilizing oak barrel alternatives in young wines from Sonoma County and Napa Valley, Calif. Presenting the tasting were Eglantine Chauffour, winemaker for Enartis Vinquiry, and Victoria Wilson, assistant winemaker for Wilson Artisan Wineries

After an introduction by Chauffour, who summarized the components of oak that affect wine flavor and structure, and how Enartis Vinquiry’s oak barrel alternatives are manufactured, participants in the breakout tasting session got to taste for themselves.

The 75 registrants participating in this session tasted four samples of a 2013 Zinfandel produced by Wilson Artisan Wineries from Molly’s Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, and four samples of a 2014 Napa-grown Sangiovese that was not identified. The Zinfandel samples were: a control wine aging in neutral oak with no alternatives, and three other samples of the wine aging in neutral barrels in contact with Barrel Boost-brand mini staves of different flavor profiles. The Sangiovese samples were: a control wine aging in neutral oak, two samples of the wine with two different mini-stave flavors, and one sample aging with oak chips.

    Inaugural oak conference draws 337

    More than 337 people attended the Wines & Vines Oak Conference at the former Copia building in Napa, Calif. That total included 249 registrants and speakers, plus the exhibitor attendees who filled 37 booths, and the session sponsors.

    Key speakers, in addition to those mentioned in the accompanying article, included David Ramey, founder and winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars; Joshua Marrow, seismic safety expert; and California winemakers Jeffrey Stambor of Beaulieu, Hugh Chappelle of Quivira, Janet Myers of Franciscan, Richard Sowalsky of Clos Pegase, Scot Covington of Trione Family and Zeke Neeley of Trefethen.

Chauffour explained that the mini staves were added to the wine in the amount of one bag for each barrel, consisting of multiple short staves in a skinny nylon mesh bag, like links in a string of oak sausages. The oak contact trials had been going for four to six weeks.

After each flight was tasted, the participants voted with a show of hands on their preferred wines. A majority identified the neutral control samples without difficulty. When Chauffour explained the flavor names of the mini staves, and asked people to guess which was “dark chocolate” and which was “special fruit” in the Zinfandel, for example, there was also general agreement.

But when asked for favorites, the biggest vote getter (with about 60% in agreement) was a blend of stave flavors. “Some thought it was a new barrel or the finished product,” Chauffour said later. “This sample was more integrated, more complex, with a little bit of every flavor. I felt our trial demonstrated precisely what we hoped for, with the majority of the group preferring a blend of oak alternatives to the neutral barrel or an individual component.”

A study in Sangiovese
When tasting the Sangiovese trial, almost everyone identified the dark chocolate flavor in the Incanto brand chips called “dark chocolate.” In general, however, the “dark chocolate” mini staves were preferred. The control and the Incanto chips were a little bit reduced, Chauffour said, while the mini stave samples were more ready to taste, more open.

More than half of the tasting attendees indicated with a show of hands that they already use oak barrel alternatives in their wines. To explain why oak alternatives are such a popular option, Chauffour briefly outlined the benefits that oak aging in general gives to wine, including enhanced aromas, oak flavors, increased structure and complexity, increased oxygenation and softening of structure and tannins.

She then addressed the use of oak barrel alternatives in particular, citing the shorter contact time needed compared to new barrels, the repeatability from vintage to vintage, the fact that they work well in low-cost or already-paid-for neutral barrels, and that they may be used to avoid barrels altogether for some styles of wine, when added (for instance) in a stainless steel tank.

Cost per vintage is also a very important factor. She estimated:
    • New barrel: $200-$400 per hectoliter (26 gallons)
    • Neutral barrel: $50-$100 per hectoliter
    • Oak barrel alternatives: 30 cents to $12 per hectoliter

Recent research has clarified oak’s role in the positive oxygenation of wine. Two other conference speakers, Dr. James Kennedy, chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at California State University, Fresno, and Andrei Prida, researcher at Seguin Moreau cooperage, commented that a significant amount of the oxygenation of wine in a barrel is a result of the wine consuming oxygen from the wood staves, where oxygen has been trapped, not just from oxygen entering through the bunghole the minute gaps between staves, or traveling from the outside air through the stave itself.

Chauffour also observed that oak chips and staves contribute oxygen directly to wine, and the thicker the oak product, the longer it takes to consume all that oxygen. She said that a new oak barrel contributes from 18-29mg per liter per year, while a neutral oak barrel, after holding just three to five wines, contributes about 9 to 12mg per liter per year.

Mini staves release 3.9mg per liter before they are saturated, when used at 4.5g per liter of wine, and Incanto brand chips release 0.4mg per liter when used at 2g per liter.

For the rate of extraction of flavor, aroma and textural compounds from the oak, Chauffour emphasized that the amount of contact surface is key. A bigger contact surface (as in chips) equals faster extraction of the compounds.


Currently no comments posted for this article.