For centuries winemakers had just a few choices for storage of their wines. Various forms of pottery early on, concrete vessels, and barrels. Barrels come in in many species of wood, but are most commonly made of oak. These oaks are sourced from many areas, in various species and each have their own characteristics in developing flavor profiles in wines. Oak also imparts tannins that adds structure and stabilizes a wines color.
Lately, as the cost of quality barrels has increased as much as 35%. This is due to market pressure from microbreweries, craft distillers and the overall growth of the wine industry in the US. Winemakers have been given many forms of oak alternatives to enhance their wines. They are available in wide range of species, at various toast levels, and come in an endless variety of package sizes. Chips, spirals, beads, powders, stix, in endless variations.
I prefer the Oak Stix, as they are sterile packaged and ensure a clean environment on the shelf. These oak products are proven technologies that are not only employed by home winemakers, but embraced by the commercial wine industry as well. Cost effective storage methods like stainless steel can accommodate the infusion of oak in its various available forms and gain amazing results. Much to the disappointment of some very elite barrel producers, the prestigious Geisenhiem Research Institute of Germany found "no discernable" difference in wines produced in barrels versus wine produced with oak alternatives. Now I am sure that debate will continue for the next thousand years or so, but science says its so.
Some home recipes are known to be effective methods of adding oak influence as well. While not legal for commercial wineries, home winemakers readily employ the use of oak extracts.
Here is a recipe I like:
4 ounces of 100 proof vodka
4 ounces of oak chips (your choice)
4 ounces of white wine.
Heat the vodka and white wine to 100 degrees F. Place in a mason jar and add the 4 ounces of oak chips. Allow the chips to steep in the mixture for 30 days. Shake once or twice daily during this time. Strain off the oak chips from the mixture. Add two ounces of this solution in 15 gallons of wine or to taste. Flavor is readily absorbed into the wine and you'll be amazed at the influence of it. If you are entering any competition with your wines, be sure and check the rules for additives or enhancements.
So whether you prefer a barrel, wine stix, spirals or some form of extract, continue to experiment with the various options and discover what results you can achieve in our wines with the wonderful alternatives in oak. Remember.....small trial batches for comparing results and minimizing risks.