Among the many questions that I receive, a fair number relate to whether or not to use oak, when to use it and which oak to use. In my one of my previous featured articles, I discussed the pros and cons of putting your wine in a barrel versus putting oak in the wine. In this article, we will discuss putting the oak in your wine.
Due to the high cost of purchasing and maintaining oak barrels, most home wine makers, as well as more and more commercial wineries, are avoiding them in favor of oak "additives". These additives come in several forms as follows:
- Oak Powder (sometimes referred as "sawdust")
- Oak Chips
- Oak Cubes (commonly called Oak Beans)
- Oak Infusion Spirals
- Oak Staves
Oak can add flavors and tannins to your wine to give it more body, aroma and flavor. As a general rule, oak is only used on red grape wines and certain white grape wines, as the oak flavor can overwhelm some of the more delicate white grape wines and country wines; however, if used sparingly, oak can firm up any wine! The tannins in the oak add complexity, as well as, flavor and body. For example, if you feel that a particular kit wine is "thin", adding a little oak, even to the whites, will give it a little more body and improve the "mouth feel".
Deciding when to use which type of oak additive is primarily based on the available time and patience you have. Each of the additives listed above have a different surface to liquid ratio. As such, they will give up their flavors and tannins more quickly if the ratio is high. The powder will give up its tannins within one week, while a stave may take one year. Consequently, if you have more time to wait on your wine, additives with a lower surface to liquid ratio will be preferred. If you are in a hurry, then the powder or chips will better suit your needs. Keep in mind that you have more control over the effects of the oak if it takes longer to work. This provides you will more time to taste the wine and judge when to remove the oak.
Oak powder and chips are normally used in primary fermentation and are finished with their job by the time you do the first racking. Using these items early in the process allows them to settle out quickly so they do not interfere with the clearing process and enable you to bottle your wine in short order. This is why wine kit manufacturers use oak powder and chips in their wines.
Oak cubes or beans are added after stablizing and are left in the wine for 2-6 months. When using these products, I sample the wine every month. When the wine has the profile I want, I rack the wine off of the oak into a clean and sanitized carboy. Alternatively, you can put the cubes in a straining bag or hop sock and remove the bag when finished with the oak. Keep in mind that the oak flavor will diminish as the wine ages, so don't remove the oak too soon!
A new product, the Infusion Spiral, is available for those in a hurry. These products do their job in 2-6 weeks, instead of 2-6 months. If carboys are at a premium at your home, then these spirals are an excellent alternative to the cubes. One word of caution, these spirals do work fast. I strongly recommend tasting every week to determine when to pull the oak. You can put these straight into the carboy or use a fishing line to dangle the spiral in your wine.
Oak staves are generally not used in carboys but used in large vessels like stainless steel tanks. The cost of enough cubes or spirals for a 300 liter tank can become expensive. Oak staves offer a more cost effective solution.
No matter which way you decide to go, always remember that over oaked wines can take years to soften enough to drink; therefore, when using oak, always err on the side of caution. As with a lot of home wine making, it may take several attempts to find the flavor profile for you, so always keep good notes so you can replicate your success and not repeat your failures.