Oak or oak-like?

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I find the smell of oak really seductive. One sniff of an oak barrel and I’m transported to cellars and tasting rooms from Sonoma to Siena. Wine’s relationship with oak dates back to the Roman Empire when winemakers discovered that oak barrels not only made good storage containers, but also enhanced the taste and structure of the wine. However, with new oak barrels costing $450 for American and $900 for French, some winemakers are opting for less expensive alternatives. Do we need the real thing, or can it be faked?  

Winemaker Brad McCarthy says he’ll always be a “barrel guy,” but there’s a time and place
for oak alternatives.

Brad McCarthy makes wine for his own Bradford Reed label, but also works for Chêne & Cie, an umbrella group of five cooperages and one oak alternatives company. McCarthy told me that he has a long-standing love affair with barrels, but then opened a pouch of “medium plus toasted” granular oak and waved it under my nose. Mr. McCarthy, are you trying to seduce me? Well, it worked—it smelled just like a barrel.

He went on to explain that while he will always be a “barrel guy,” there is a time and place for oak alternatives. “Oak helps to stabilize color and flesh out the structure of wine,” explains McCarthy, “but this can often be mimicked inexpensively by adding oak chips and micro-oxygenating, because the average consumer doesn’t care how it’s done as long as it tastes good.” Big Australian brands like Yellow Tail have won over many of us with cheap, fruity, oaky wines that have never seen the inside of a barrel.

In his own winemaking, McCarthy uses granular oak at the fermentation stage of his red grapes to lock in the color and to decrease vegetal aromas, which are a particular problem to one of Virginia’s beloved grapes, Cabernet Franc. After fermentation though, he transfers his wines (all but the Riesling) into oak barrels for aging, because he finds the exchange of oxygen and moisture that barrels allow worth the cost.

With room for 24 cases of wine, a new barrel can be written off as “equipment” that depreciates over its five-year lifespan (at which point, the barrel becomes a “neutral”). The cost is still prohibitive for some, so McCarthy trained with a master cooper to learn the modern art of “barrel renewal.” By adding 14 square feet of new oak into neutral barrels, McCarthy can sell all the benefits of a new oak barrel at a fifth of the cost. Other barrel alternatives are considered “flavor enhancers” and include products like powders, chips, staves, beans, soakers, and even oak-on-a-rope. 

For terroir-driven winemakers like Blenheim Vineyards’ Kirsty Harmon, oak alternatives are too heavy-handed and eclipse the flavor of the fruit. “Oak is the main way that I can influence the final taste of the wine, so I try to be pretty subtle and use oak only in the form of barrels, making certain that fruit is still the focus.”

It seems that we have a ways to go before the winemakers using oak alternatives proudly confess, but McCarthy is selling more oak chips at $3/lb than he is barrels, so I imagine many of our favorite wineries have made the switch with us being none the wiser. Goes to show that you can’t always sniff out the faker.

This week is Regional Wine Week. Read about wines from Virginia and elsewhere in the United States on drinklocalwine.com.

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