How Oak Makes Or Breaks A Wine

Posted: Oct 28, 2017

Oak has long been used to add flavor and complexity to wine. In addition to barrels there are a number of oak products on the market you can use to make wine with instead of having to deal with the expense and upkeep of a barrel.

Before we get into the oak products let’s talk a little bit about the various aspects of oak and what it can do for you. You may also be interested in reading How Oak Affects Wine. That article goes into how oak from different places in the world impart different nuances to your wine.

The following are some of the more prominent flavors you can get from using oak:

-smoky / campfire

In addition to the flavors listed above oak also adds tannins to the wine.

There are a two things that can greatly impact the flavor that oak imparts on your wine. These are the age of the oak itself as well as the toast of the oak.

Toasting an Oak Barrel
Before the oak goes into a barrel or other oak product it is aged. They stack the oak outdoors and let it sit anywhere from several months to three years or so.

The longer it sits the higher the quality, however, the cost goes up too. The gold standard for barrels is oak that has been weathered for 36 months.

During its time outdoors the oak dries out

When barrels are made the oak staves are arranged around a flame that heats and “toasts” the wood. This process carmelizes sugars naturally present in the wood.

The toast of the oak can range from barely being visible to being completely charred. The most common toast levels are light, medium, medium plus, and heavy.

Lightly toasted oak retains much of the “woody” type flavor. Often a light toast will impart more tannins and green wood flavors.

A heavy toast is the most drastic toast you can put on oak. It results in a smoky flavor. One of my favorite Zinfandels has a stronger smoky taste that makes it seem like you’re drinking your wine in front of a campfire. While I can’t confirm they use a heavy toast I would presume it is.

Medium plus is somewhere between medium and heavy toasts. This is the darkest toast most wineries use, at least from what I’ve seen.

There are several diffent types of oak products you can use to impart these flavors on your wine.

Basically this is toasted oak that has been made into sawdust. The particles are very small which means the surface area of oak is maximized. This oak product is what is most commonly included with wine making kits.

Because the particles are so small they impart flavor quickly. If you were looking for a boost of oak flavor before bottling you could add oak dust and within a week or so it will have imparted just about everything it has to offer.

When you first add the dust it will float. Over time and as it interacts with your wine it will sink to the bottom. Once it has settled out it is no longer adding anything to your wine. In order to remove the oak you must rack off of it into another container or go ahead and bottle if the wine is ready.

Oak cubes are about 1/2 inch square on all sides making them a convenient choice for carboys. Chips are similar in size but flat like oak mulch (without all the moisture). These are probably the easiest oak products to find as most every wine making supply store will carry cubes. Additionally, you’ll find a greater variety of oaks from different locations throughout the world and in all the toast levels.

The variety and availability of cubes makes them an ideal oak product to use when you’re looking to dial in a very specific oak profile. For instance you could use 70% French oak with medium toast and 15% Hungarian oak with medium plus toast, and 15% American oak with a different toast.

These cubes, like the oak dust, will sink over time so you’ll either need to rack off of them or use a nylon bag to contain them. These can be tricky to get out of a carboy though so think about the shape of the bag you use before you put it in.

Because cubes are larger than the oak dust they will impart flavors more slowly. This gives you time to monitor your wine and separate the wine from the cubes when the oak profile is exactly where you want it to be.

Some winemaker’s also like cubes because after they’ve been removed from the wine they can be used to smoke meats on the grill.

Oak spirals look like dowels that have been had a deep groove cut into it that spiral down the length of the wood. They come in different lenths so that you can purchase on that fits your carboy or other aging vessel. Some wineries will use spirals in oak barrels that are older than 5 years old and don’t have much oak flavor to offer any more.

The spiral cut of the wood increases the exposed surface area of the wood without increasing the length of the oak. This helps you maximize your results.

Spirals are easy to remove from a carboy or primary fermenter given their size and the fact that they are in one piece. Like cubes, spirals impart oak flavor more slowly so you can closely monitor progress.

Barrels are made up of individual curved pieces of oak known as staves. Some wine making supply places offer the individual staves as an oak adjunct you can use for adding oak flavor and character. They are produced in the same manner as staves that go into a barrel.

Not all staves are shaped like true barrel staves though. What some manufacturers call staves are more or less flat boards with or without grooves cut into them. The grooves and patterns cut into the wood increases the surface area for better extraction.

Of course you can always use the age old oak barrel for flavoring and storage. Barrels will cost the most and require upkeep between wines to make sure they don’t become a haven for spoilage micro organisms.

The biggest benefit in addition to all the flavors and tannins oak can impart is the micro-oxygenation that a barrel has to offer. They allow a very small amount of oxygen to come into contact with your wine which helps it mature.

Another benefit barrels offer is evaporation. A typical 59 US gallon barrel can loose as much as 5.5-6.5 gallons per year to evaporation. This is often referred to as “the angel’s share”.

As it turns it is water that mostly evaporates out of the barrel. This means that the longer your wine stays in the barrel the more concentrated your flavor and alcohol will become. So even if a barrel no longer has much oak flavoring to impart on your wine the flavors of the wine itself will become more concentrated over time.

Larger pieces of oak are handy in that they are easily removed once your wine has picked up the amount of oak flavoring you were looking for. You don’t have to rack off of them as you would with oak cubes.

Larger oak products come in handy when flavoring larger volumes of wine. It would take a lot of oak dust or cubes to flavor 100 gallons of wine whereas it might only take a couple spirals or staves.

As you can tell you have a lot of options when it comes to adding oak flavor to your wine. There is no “best” option except for the one that you feel the most comfortable with.

Here are a couple places you can go online (at least in the US) to see examples of the oak products discussed above.

Midwest Supplies: Midwest carries a wide variety of oak cubes, spirals, and some chips.
MoreWinemaking: this site offers cubes, Winestix, chips, and barrels.

Please note that the above links are affiliate links. Using these links to purchase products helps to support Winemaker’s Academy.

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