Oak alternatives have come a long way in recent years. It used to be that suggesting the use of alternatives was like uttering a swear word, and would inspire thoughts of campfire smoke, overly sweet, overly charred, and raw toothpick aromas and flavors that would mar an otherwise great wine. It used to be quite easy for a moderate to experienced wine drinker to detect expensive oak barrel usage as opposed to cheap alternatives with just a whiff of the bouquet. These days, however, thanks to scientific research and technology, alternatives can be just as good, at a mere fraction of the cost, as an oak barrel.
Oak alternatives are any other form of oak other than a barrel or holding vessel. Using either a neutral oak barrel, or stainless steel tanks or barrels, you can add alternatives the way you would a teabag or whole spices in a sauce, allowing them to soak into the wine and impart their influence. Alternatives come in many forms: Oak-on-a-rope (chains of oak sticks joined together by string) and oak balls, blocks, or chips are meant to be added to barrels. Oak powder (basically splinter-sized pieces of oak) can be put into a cheesecloth or steeping bag and added to tanks and other large fermenting vessels, and easily removed when the desired effect is reached. Tank staves are large slats of oak fastened together in a hand fan-like shape. They can be suspended in tanks, usually during fermentation or short periods of aging, rather than putting the wine to barrel if you just want limited contact. Tank stave sets can even be as tall as the tank they’re going into, and cover the entire inside wall. Barrel inserts are a set of staves that need to be installed in barrels and are meant to stay in the barrels. These rejuvenate the barrel for 2-3 years and allow things like cleaning and lees stirring to happen without needing to be removed. These are the general configurations of alternatives, but depending on the cooperage, they may have their own proprietary choices, as well.
What really makes oak alternative better now than they used to be is the quality of the wood used and the technology and science that goes into the toasting. Higher quality cuts of oak are being used now than ever before, and cooperages are using more precise methods of convection and fire toasting to get the customized effect you are looking for. It is now easier to fine-tune the oak influence you want to get, and it’s a matter of just removing or inserting staves into a tank or barrel, as opposed to racking to tank, cleaning, and returning the wine to barrel. Some alternatives can even be constructed of oak pieces of different toast levels or origins, making it even easier to add complexity to the wine.
In the next installment of the Harvest Series, I’ll discuss laboratory analysis during harvest.