There’s more than one ‘right’ way – Oak Alternatives

The relationship between oak trees and winemaking started from circumstance. In the regions where vines were first planted and wines were first made, sprawling savannahs of oak trees shared the landscape. If you find a region with great wine, you will also find a region with oak trees. It hasn’t been until recent years, that we’ve learned just how special and unique this relationship is. Over the course of 3 blogs, we are going to explore the many forms of oak and the dance that it takes with wine as it ages.

They’re big, they’re traditional, but many wineries are searching for alternatives. The oak barrel is an iconic symbol of the wine industry. However, many people are beginning to look for new and creative ways to implement oak. The alternative practices of oak are separated into two categories of pre and post-fermentation. The way winemakers are achieving this by:

Alternate Oaking Processes(Most Common)

Chips: Pre-Fermentation

Powders: Pre-Fermentation

Staves: Post-Fermentation

Extract: Post-Fermentation

Just like barrels, these alternative forms are being created at cooperages. The alternative components come in light, medium, and dark toasts.  These processes are designated as pre-fermentation and post-fermentation uses. The distinction between pre and post fermentation is modifying characteristics of the yeast and tannin structure. During this process, the yeast cells are transforming the powerful oak aromas into a mild influencer. This softens the oak structure and makes it an attribute to the wine that elevates the experience. Lastly, a major benefit of this process is polysaccharides which comes from the oak during fermentation. Polysaccharides are a complex sugar that adds weight, mouthfeel, and length of the finish.

The difference with post fermentation exploration is the increased tannic structure around the oaking. This comes from the oak not being influenced by yeast and instead is soluble due to the alcohol in the tank. The lack of influence from the yeast causes the oak to show its powerful and tannic nuances. Also, with the post-fermentation application, the degree of toasting on the oak becomes more noticeable to a palette.

The last alternative oaking process, our team wanted to discuss is oak extract. This is an interesting process that creates an immediate influence of oak. They create the extract by soaking oak chips and chunks in high proof alcohol. The oak concentrate is then measured and mixed into the wine right before bottling. The issue and reason for a less producers using this program are because the oaking can come off as overwhelming. Specifically, it had a tendency to create bitter flavors and a burnt nose.

The main reason for the transition to the alternative oaking is because of the cost of barrels. Both alternative and traditional methods are great ways to implement the structure of oaking. However, the reality is that the wine industry is very opinionated, and nobody can be wrong. The best practice will be different for all producers and there is nothing wrong with that. The goal of all wineries is to create a high quality product and if this accomplishable with alternate oaking then more power to you.

At Westmount, we use both barrel and alternative forms of oak in our aging processes. We find that this brings depth and breadth to the wines, as well as, giving our winemakers a palate to work with as they make their final blends.