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Q: Oak Chips in Place of Barrels?

by David on August 23, 2007

Question from James: I heard someone talking about using oak chips to make wine instead of putting it in a barrel. Can that be true? Say it isn’t so!

Reply: Hi, James! Thanks for writing! I can offer you the comfort of knowing that top-flight producers still age their wine in oak barrels. We certainly do here at Goosecross. I can also say that nothing does for wine what barrels do. Otherwise we wouldn’t use them.

However, barrel aging is extremely costly so I’m afraid, in order to be honest, I’ll have to disillusion you. It’s increasingly common for wineries to use oak chips in place of barrel aging.

The big factors in barrel aging costs are:

1.  The barrel itself is expensive, with French oak running between $800.00 and $1000.00 per 60-gallon barrel. American oak barrels are around $400.00.
2. Labor: It’s much more efficient to manage wine by the 5000-gallon tank than it is by the 60-gallon barrel (rack that 5000-gallon lot once, tank to tank, instead of 83 times, barrel to barrel).

3. Evaporation loss (as much as 5% annually, depending upon humidity in the cellar): the evaporation helps the wine to age, but a 5% “angel’s share” of a 60-gallon barrel is about 15 bottles a year. Those are some happy angels! :-) The loss also increases labor costs because we have to replace it by using the wine in one barrel to “top up” all the others to protect the wine from spoilage.

There are numerous barrel alternatives, such as oak chips and other flavoring devices, plus there’s also the option of lining the large tank with oak staves, also for flavoring. These options give the winemaker the opportunity to introduce more flavor and complexity without incurring such a high cost. It used to be that only low-end wineries, selling wine for under $10.00/bottle, employed these techniques but, according to Wine Business Monthly, the use is creeping up into wines that sell for $25.00/bottle, sometimes even more!

The thing is, these alternatives only flavor the wine. They don’t help it to mature. When we put the wine into a barrel it changes everything: color, aroma, flavor, concentration, etc. The evaporation and consequent oxidation inside the barrel sets off a whole series of chemical reactions that mature, integrate and soften the wine.

Awhile back, the French came up with a technique called micro-oxygenation that helps to soften the wine. It’s simply a matter of introducing controlled amounts of oxygen into the wine before or after fermentation. It’s used on different wines for different reasons and is one way of mimicking barrel aging.

I think we all have mixed feelings about these things. On one hand, you tell yourself that if the chips make an inexpensive wine more enjoyable, then why not? On the other hand, it certainly takes away from the romantic vision we all have of the dark, silent, oak-scented aging cellar.

It all goes back to this question of manipulation: how to define it and how to feel about it.

So, how do you all feel about the use of oak chips? If you knew a winery had used them would it prevent you from buying the wine?

One more question: do you think this kind of thing should be disclosed on the label?

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