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03.28.2006

Oak Barrels are Obsolete?

As if the wine world weren't trembling enough from the rumblings of modernity and globalization, the closure wars, the entry of China into the marketplace, and winegrowers rioting in France and more recently in Chile, now a new crack appears in the foundation of traditional wine thinking.

Barrels are obsolete. Not necessary. Irrelevant. And, by the way, far too expensive.

At least that's what some winemakers, including one fairly accomplished one whose wines I've reviewed here, are saying. The oak trees of the world are no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief but I'm sure this latest pronouncement will bring up all the usual questions and concerns about what is "real" wine and what is not.

Where do you draw the line between wine and an oak flavored fermented grape beverage?

For what it's worth, the folks who make things like oak chips (literally small chunks of oak which are steeped in vats of wine much like teabags) and wine staves (sticks or bricks of oak that are submerged into the wine with the same effect), as well as the winemakers who employ such devices are all saying that this is a cheaper, easier way to get the same results as aging wine in oak barrels (assuming you use both methods for the same amount of time).

These techniques (which are technically illegal according to the appellation rules of many countries, but rumored to be employed nonetheless) are generally used for cheaper wines whose cost structures can't support the pricey new oak barrels that the big names use. But increasingly, according to this article, some pretty expensive wines are utilizing these technologies, which make for ultimately lower overheard and higher profit margins. What high-end winery doesn't want that, I ask you?

Read the full story and make up your own mind. The real question is, of course, can you taste the difference?

Comments (24)

JRB wrote:
03.28.06 at 11:10 PM

McMannis is crazy for admitting this practice. I was a home winemaker buying grapes (and wood chips) up in the Valley, so I kind of thought this was going on. But you know the French and probably some other countries will outlaw these wines, or sue for fraud.

Fiorenzo wrote:
03.29.06 at 4:02 AM

Humm, here in Italy is already illegal. Plus, when we want criticize some foreign producers, we say: "eh, they're allowed to use chips".

tduchesne wrote:
03.29.06 at 4:23 AM

Alder,
Coudln't agree with you more. I wrote about this earlier this week over on Space City Wine. My biggest issue is that if they are using wood chips say that and don't just say "aged in oak" which is being somewhat disingenuous.

bill wrote:
03.29.06 at 5:28 AM

Alder,
Unfortunately for the proponents of wine 'chipping,' barrel maturation does more tna simply adding oak flavor to wine. Through a slow and gentle process, barrel maturation softens tanins, adds depth of color and through oxygenation, adds both aromatic and taste complexity (though at the expense of "fruitiness').
But whatever. As I have never tasted any McManis Family wines, I will refrain from judgement but I can imagine the taste profile with a certain disdain and apathy.
However, it does help understand how other winemakers who do pay the cash for the barrels would see this as an unfair competitive adavantage, especially if there is any reference to oak (aside from aromatisized) on the McManis labels.
Bill

Mike Tommasi wrote:
03.29.06 at 6:00 AM

Hi

Oak can be used for aging or for flavouring. If the latter is what one is looking for, then yes chips will achieve the same result better. But oak flavouring is just that, flavouring, and in the context of quality wine it makes no sense, in fact it is a form of consumer fraud. By the same logic I suppose you can pour some cat pee in the sauvignon ;-)

For aging, barrels achieve this by allowing minute amounts of oxygen to contact the wine through time. Oak chips will not age wine.

There is a third aspect, using the barrel for MAKING the wine, fermenting in barrels with batonnage to stir up the yeast. This techniques is used to make some of the world's most remarkable wines.

Moral of the story, if chips are used for flavoring cheap low uality wines, so be it. For aging? It will not work.

cheers

Mike

Ben wrote:
03.29.06 at 8:04 AM

Yeah, let's not forget that the McManis wines mostly sell for less than ten dollars a bottle. I can't remember if it says anything about oak on the bottle, but I do know that people like them. Lots of people like them.

Flyer wrote:
03.29.06 at 8:34 AM

Mike, thanks for explaining the difference in the two techniques and why this debate matters.

From the perspective of production and marketing, I'm in favor of techniques that increase productivity or lower cost, as that can only be a benefit to the consumer in the long run. I'm not one to do things the traditional way, just because that's how they've always been done. But change at the expense of quality, or authenticity, doesn't neccesarily benefit anyone, either and accurate disclosure to the consumer is also a must.

Now that I know what effect each technique has on the wine, I'll have to taste and shop accordingly.

rama wrote:
03.29.06 at 8:37 AM

I assume these commercial winemakers are also using some sort of Micro-Ox system in conjunction with their oak chips/cubes? The fact that barrels are slightly oxygen permeable is (supposedly) their greatest contribution to complexity.

Alder wrote:
03.29.06 at 9:11 AM

Bill (and Mike),

Sure, aging and flavoring are different things, but let's be clear, these folks aren't suggesting that oak chips can replace the effects of aging. Quite the contrary, they are suggesting that wines be aged in steel (many red wines are with nice results all over europe, as I'm sure you know) and that they be treated the same way (rest on the lees, racking, etc. etc.). Perhaps they use micro-oxygenation as well, as some other commenters here have suggested, though the article didn't mention it. It is perfectly possible according to my understanding to get the same sort of gradual oxygenation of a wine using steel tanks.

Not that I'm advocating for this approach for winemaking per se, I just want to make it clear that these oak treatments have nothing to do with properly aging a wine.

bob wrote:
03.29.06 at 11:09 AM

If you are in the Napa valley there is a great tour of Del Dotto winery where you get to sample the same wine that has been aged in different ways (American oak, French oak). They don't have one with oak chips, but the difference is quite amazing. Best tour I've ever taken.

Tyler T wrote:
03.29.06 at 12:18 PM

It is my understanding that oak chip/stave production technology has improved such that the gap between chip/stave flavoring and oak barrel flavoring is narrowing. However, aging and fermenting in oak represents an important difference. And not just for the O2 exchange, small vessels like oak have different temperature exchanges than stainless and will result in slightly different fermentation and aging kinetics. Barrels won't become obsolete very quickly.
It does seem disingenuous to say "aged in oak" when chips are used, but I don't see any problem with using them. I have had Runquist's wines, they are a great buy.

03.29.06 at 10:06 PM

As bob mentioned, anyone who's tasted barrel samples of the same batch of wine aging in different barrels -- ages, types and origin -- should be able to remark on the marked difference in taste between each barrel.

Jeff Cohn's (of Rosenblum) got a great database of different barrels and the qualities they impart over at Wine Business Monthly that's a pretty good read.

http://winebusiness.com/Html/MonthlyArticle.cfm?dataId=29559

I'm not saying that this couldn't be reproduced with staves, micro-ox and a stainless steel tank. But I also bet you'd have to try a lot harder to do it than Jeff does by just buying 30 different types of barrels...

Ben wrote:
03.30.06 at 7:51 AM

30 different kinds of barrels? That sounds like he's trying pretty hard.

I went and checked out a bottle of the 2004 McManis Cabernet and I couldn't find anything about oak anywhere on the label.

Ben wrote:
03.30.06 at 7:55 AM

I almost forgot. I was talking to a winemaker the other day, and he was very open about the fact that he used oak chips for his dry Gewurztraminer. That was a surprise to me.

Anonymous Winemaker wrote:
03.30.06 at 8:13 AM

The article correctly states that use of oak alternatives is way more prevalent than people think. The issue, of course, is not the quality of the wine, but consumers' perception that something is done to the wine beyond "normal" or "reasonable", main reason wineries don't like speaking on the subject. Think about this, if I leave you a nice message, a personal Thank You card for example, how do you know if it was wrtitten by a Cartier pen worth $740 or a decent Pentel one worth $6? And if not, does it in any way change or "cheapen" the actual message?

Same thing with oak alternatives. Retrofitting old barrels with new oak inner staves achieves same flavor profile as buying a brand new oak barrel, I've tasted them side by side on a number of occasions at a high end Napa winery and can say that I actually prefer the inner stave wines. Cost benefit? $100 per barrel versus $900 for a new French oak barrel. Same oak is used for inner staves, you get to pick what you want forrest and toast levels wise.

Use of oak chips is also pretty wide spread these days. As stated in the article, it allows a very precise way of infusing just the level of oak a winery prefers. Again, same oak and toast levels as in barrels and inner staves, you pick what you want. As opposed to inner staves, though, I think high end wineries use oak chips to correct or rather fine tune what is already a finished wine. Of course, the big boys making millions of cases of wine use oak chips exclusively for logistical reasons, as mentioned in the article.

Anonymous "big boy (?)" winemaker wrote:
03.30.06 at 12:51 PM

Oak adjuncts (staves, beans, cubes, chips, dust, etc.) have improved greatly over the past few years which create more of an argument for their use than simply logistics.

A. McTaggart wrote:
03.31.06 at 9:48 AM

I have to take exception to this quote by the "anonymous winemaker" (see a few comments above):

"Of course, the big boys making millions of cases of wine use oak chips exclusively for logistical reasons, as mentioned in the article."

Wrong.
At least in regards to Kendall-Jackson...
We have a ~5 million case brand with ~200,000 oak barrels to support it.

No, that's not a typo: 200,000 barrels.

It's split out between a number of wineries strategically placed near the cool coastal vineyards where we grow our grapes (Santa Barbara, Monterey, Napa, and Sonoma Counties) making it fairly easy to deal with such a large number of barrels, and keeps them close to where they're to be used.

Our commitment to barrel fermentation, sur lies aging Chardonnay, and oak aging reds is evidenced by the following:
1. K-J is a prinicpal in an oak stave mill in France where we purchase wood from the source, form and age the wood for use in our own barrels
2. work with cooperages to produce barrels which meet our standards
3. we have barrels from 50+ cooperages, using a variety of wood sources and toasting regimes
4. the monetary commitment to this style of winemaking is around $28 MIL yearly to cycle in new wood - and that's just empty new barrels, no labor costs yet, maintenance costs for the barrels you already have, utilities, manpower or viticultural costs...

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.
And as an Assitant Winemaker @ K-J, I think I'm in a position to know...
The reason we can still sell wines at the prices we have is because we've invested in how we get our barrels, and how we make them, and specialize in the this style of winemaking, not because we've sacrificed barrels to some vague 'logistics' reason.
And that K-J is still so popular is testament to the public's desire for the flavors crafted from traditional techniques, and traditional barrel aging of wines.
K-J's commitment to this style of winemaking and quality approach is why I've worked for K-J for the past decade, and will proudly continue to do so into the future.

Thanks for providing the space to reply.
A. S. McTaggart
Assistant Winemaker, Barrels
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates

Alder wrote:
03.31.06 at 8:44 PM

Alec,

Thanks for your comments and addition to the discussion.

Some guy wrote:
03.31.06 at 11:13 PM

It must be good wine, because Robert Parker had some very good things to say about McManis on his internet board. Though he doesn't mention any particular oak flavoring, he does assert that the wine was aged for 7 months in American and French oak.

Here are his comments from http://dat.erobertparker.com/bboard/showthread.php?s=62006497a7e4baf51d4986267ca10759&t=82076:

Robert Parker
Wine Critic

Robert Parker's Avatar


Default Why so few California wines like this?
California has 50-75 wineries producing world class wines at very lofty prices, but why are there so few wineries dedicated to turning out interesting and tasty wines for under $15?
I have written some of their wines up in the past as best values,but I was surprised in a positive manner just how good the 2004 McManis Family Vineyards cabernet sauvignon is ...I paid $11.99 at a Baltimore wine shop...and I think the wholesale cost is around $8!
Now this is not a BIG wine,but an elegant mid-weight one to drink over the next 1-2 years...but it has all the characteristics of a good cabernet...just more silky and ready for immediate consumption...according to the winery they farm/lease 1200 acres in the San Joaquin valley....and this wine was aged 7 months in a combination of used and new French and American wood....the alcoholphobes out there will be distressed to know it does contain alcohol...but comes in just under 14% if the label is to be believed.....this is one very tasty,ready to drink cabernet and I lament the fact so few California wineries focus on good wines in this price category....sante!...and kudos to McManis!....oh...their telephone # is 209-599-1186...

blackhawk wrote:
04.02.06 at 9:38 AM

Don't forget that Jeff Runquist actually makes the McManis wines. Vinography has picked up a couple wines from his own label in review and I was delighted with his Amador County Primitivo, even if a bit hot. I like the fact that he takes the best a region has to offer (Paso syrahs, Amador zins, etc.) to offer the best wine he can using the resources at hand (steel tanks and oak tea bags so be it). Would I prefer that he was a troll in some mountain village whose cave was filled with hand-crafted barrels? Perhaps if I was a goat herder with stinky cheese to barter. The point being that I won't tell him how to do his job, because he likely doesn't know how to do mine.

JRB wrote:
04.02.06 at 9:24 PM

I was the first to respond to this thread and would like to add a little. I know that when I used oak chips in my home winemaking, it was to extend the life of the barrel that I owned. I oaked one gallon of wine and blended it back with my gallons in my neutral barrel. For a home winemaker, this seemed like a reasonable way to get the aeration from a barrel and oak flavors too.

But I would hate to think that some struggling winery that put themselves in a predicament by paying too much for their vineyard property during the high flying last decade is cutting cost by using chips while still charging the sickening figure of $100 a bottle for their swill. If they are going to skirt accepted practices and use chips, they should be required to show it on the label. Without this, common sense would assume accepted practice...barrels.

Let's face it, even true wine geeks, when faced with blind tasting, are as probably as likely to favor a $10 Aussie shiraz as a $70 Napa Syrah. Most of us have not reached the master sommelier level. We pay the $60 premium on the Napa Syrah because we purchase the "package" which includes not only the wine itself, but the heritage or mystique of the vineyard, winemaker and winery, the winemaking practice and other intangibles. All things being the same, I would be pissed if I found out one the ways I was valuing my (often overpriced) wine (type and amount of oak) was being corrupted by cost savings or short cuts in the winemaking practice, whether I could tell it in blind tasting or not.

If you use chips, tell the truth.

Chris wrote:
04.03.06 at 2:42 PM

The creation of wine is a series of manipulations to a simple fruit. Planting vines, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide, barrels, tightly controlled fermentation...they're all just manipulations. I see no reason to judge a specific type of wine manipulation based on any other criteria than taste and cost. Furthermore, making a specific manipulation illegal is absolutely silly... unless of course your pretentious enough to think consumers need to be saved from themselves (I'd prefer to let them vote with the pocketbooks).

If you're the sort that feels good to supporting more traditional grape manipulations, then by all means have at it. But let those focused on price and taste buy we want, okay?

-CJ

PS: Of course, no producer should falsely advertise.

Mark Mancinelli wrote:
04.07.06 at 12:37 PM

Grape growing and wine making involves numerous decisions wherein the grower/winemaker seeks to achieve a desired style of wine. Consumers buy wine for various reasons, but one would hope that the main reason is a true appreciation for the wine drinking experience - color, aroma, mouthfeel, and all that comes after it.

Information about the wine - ie: grape varietals, growing techniques, sugar/acid at harvest, crush, maceration, interventions, aging vessel - to name some of the key bits of info - allow a consumer to gauge whether the wine is made in a manner that he or she prefers - before they buy the wine.

Overtime, a consumer can build a definite preference for certain grapes, certain locations, certain growing, vinification and aging techniques - thereby, one hopes, developing a more informed basis for choosing wines suited to their palate.

As horrible as this might sound to many, it is perfectly ok in my book to put cat piss in sav blanc. However, the addition of cat piss must be included on the label. There are some that may like the addition. I will not be one.

In short, disclose the technique - all of it, or as much as will not be confusing - and let the consumer decide. For better or worse, wine is a commodity to be consumed - there is nothing sacred about any aspect of grapes, winemaking or wine drinking - or at least nothing sacred that you can impose on someone else.

In short, there should be no rules other than whatever is done should be fully disclosed.

Before anyone gets sick over this, keep in mind that personally, I prefer traditionally made wines from traditional grape varietals with traditional lineage of terroir. For me, that means barolo's from the 70s and 80s, bordeaux from the same periods and Ca Cab from the same periods. But who am I (or you for that matter) to declare which techniques are sacred, what taste you or your neighbor should have access to, or how someone makes a beverage - (albeit one that is sacred one in my book).

It would probably be better to get over our fear of non-traditional techniques and have a little faith that people, free to choose, can distinguish the superior qualities of a good vintage Lafite from wood chip inspired Cab. But better yet would be those who can distinguish and be happy that each product exists, and who understand that, by its very existence in a market economy, the product is declaring that it must be satisfying the taste of someone.

I dont eat chicken McNuggets, and I think people who eat them are culinary heathens, but in the end, I dont mind that someone else eats them, provided the crap inside is fairly disclosed.

Or to put it another way, I cannot, as Rousseau would have, force someone to be free...in this case by prohibiting them from drinking wood chip flavored wine....I can only tell them what it is and how it is made - and let them decide!

Ian Scott wrote:
03.07.09 at 12:48 AM

"The real question is, of course, can you taste the difference?"

Ah.. I'm a bit late to this post. I like to fly fish. And make wine. And taste wine! I like to fly fish a lot. I own more fly rods than I care to admit to (part of my livelihood depends on reviewing fly rods and equipment).

This question reminds me of some of the "snobs" who will only fly fish with split cane rods. Or others who will only use dry flies. Who cares about the actual results? It's the method that matters, don't you know!

Well, tell that to my six year old son. He wouldn't know what to do with a split cane fly rod that cost 1200 dollars and took 60 hours of labor - but he knows the wonderful experience of fishing and catching fish.

In 2005, I made 5 gallons of "Old Vines" Zinfandel. I used oak chips. Came in a "premium" kit. I forgot I had put away about ten bottles down in the basement. I know I bulk aged the wine in a glass carboy with the oak chips present for about three months (after the three months, I racked to another carboy and removed the oak and then aged another 7 months).

Last week, I "discovered" the Zinfandel I had forgotten about. I opened one.

I'll tell you what - if I had more bottles, I'd send anyone a sample of it and have them tell me that a 20.00 bottle aged in an oak barrel is better. Maybe... maybe... maybe there is something I can't detect but someone else could.

It sure tastes good.. in my mouth, and others who sampled it with me! Classic Zinfandel.

Oak chips, bulk aged in glass. Maybe I can lie and say it was bulk aged in oak barrels, and the taster will be looking for that, and will comment on it.

Kind of like fine fishing rods! Modern SiC guides on a Tonkin Split Cane blank! Or something like that.. some analogy might work.

How about real seal fur vs synthetic seal fur? Sheesh.. the trout don't seem to know the difference!

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