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How to Oak Your Wine

The Great Oaken Accident | Contact Means Flavoring
Methods of Oaking | How and When to Oak | Oaking Hints and Tricks | References

The Great Oaken Accident
Centuries ago - whether by accident or design - ancient winemakers discovered that certain wines benefited from storage in watertight casks and barrels made from oak. The flavors imparted on the wine by the oak complemented the aroma and taste, and it wasn't long before the vintners everywhere were trying to control the amount of "oaking" a wine received.

Several types of wine lend themselves well to oaking, most notably the Cabernets, Chardonnays, Merlots, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux, Chianti, Burgundy, Fume Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Shiraz, and Pinot Blanc, just to name a few. Generally speaking, German wines are not usually oaked.

Depending upon the type of oak used, and the type of wine that is being oaked, a wide variety of desirable complexity can be achieved. In general, the scents of oak are non-fruit aromatics in nature. Oak can add flavors ranging from vanilla and coconut, to aromatic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It can even add an earthy or lightly organic tone to wine.

For instance, a noticeable vanillin aroma is common, especially with American oak in white wines like Chardonnay and fruity reds like Merlot.

Most of the oak that is used to flavor wine is French and American in origin, although Yugoslavian and Hungarian oak are getting some attention as well.

Increased Surface Contact = More Rapid Flavoring
Until recently, vintners had little choice when it came to oaking a wine. They simply placed the wine in an oak barrel and waited until the desired taste and aroma was achieved. About the only control they had was the type of oak used, the age and size of the barrel, and whether the barrel was charred (toasted) or not.

Vintners needed a lot of patience, because it took a while for large barrels of wine to take on the flavor of oak. This is because only a relatively small portion of the wine came in direct contact with the inside walls of the barrel. Worse yet, the older the oak barrel was, the longer it took to get the desired results!

Consider this as an applied math problem: If we wanted to increase the amount of wine that came into direct contact with the oak (increasing the surface contact, thus imparting flavor more efficiently), how could we achieve that? Using smaller barrels wasn't the entire answer, because storage was a problem.

But luckily for us, math wizards are famous for enjoying good wine - and somewhere along the way, they figured it out... instead of using a wooden barrel to surround the wine, why not let the wine surround small pieces of oak!? Now how's that for a paradigm shift?

So now, home vintners like us can use small, affordable pieces of oak, like:

  • Oak chips, beans, or staves
  • Oak powder, and
  • Oak beans, etc.

to achieve the same great oak flavor we desire - without the huge barrels!

Methods of Oaking
Here's a list of the different ways you can oak your wine. We list their advantages and disadvantages, so you can make the best decision for your particular situation.




Oak Chips

Readily available in several types and toast levels. Easy to rack wine off of chips or beans.

If adding chips to carboy, must figure an easy way to get the chips out.

Oak Powder

Because of the surface area that comes in contact with the wine, a little bit goes a long way.

Lends itself well to oaking during fermentation.

Easy to over-oak if you're not careful.

Difficult to rack wine cleanly (without getting some oak sediment in your wine).

Oak Barrels

Traditional, time-proven method for oaking large quantities of wine.

Provides alternative transportation over Niagara Falls.

Barrels are expensive for hobbyists to own and maintain.

They must be topped off repeatedly and kept in constant use for best results.

How and When to Add Oak
There are two basic times when you can add oak to wine:

  • During fermentation, or
  • After it has been racked for bulk aging

If you desire to oak during primary fermentation, it's generally best to use oak powder. This is because 1) primary fermentation lasts a finite time, and it's unlikely you'll over-oak your wine due to time alone; and 2) the oak powder will absorb wine over time and eventually sink to the bottom of the fermenter bucket, facilitating racking.

You may have noticed (depending upon which wine concentrates you've purchased) that RJ Spagnols employs this method of oaking wines. You simply open the pouch of oak powder and stir it in well with the must before you pitch the yeast. The oak powder is pre-measured, so you needn't worry about the quantity.

If you're adding oak powder to a small batch of homemade wine, you'll want to add anywhere from 4 to 20 grams per gallon, depending on the type of wine (white vs. red) and desired flavor. Generally speaking, for six U.S. gallons of wine you would add about 40 to 50 grams of oak powder for a white wine, or 70 to 85 grams of oak powder for a red wine.

On the other hand, if you prefer to oak during bulk aging, use oak chips. Two to four ounces per six gallons is about the right amount. The advantage of using chips instead of powder is that the wine is nearly finished and it is much easier to gauge the effect of the oak on the final flavor of the wine. You simply perform little taste tests along the way until you reach the desired target!

Oaking Hints and Tricks
Over the years, we've discovered some really neat ways to help you oak wines more efficiently, so we thought we'd offer some tried and true tricks of the trade:

If using oak powder:

  • When racking the wine off the lees, place a clean piece of panty hose over the tip of the siphon tube - this will keep the oak from being siphoned into secondary.
  • Better yet, place the oak powder in a pouch made from clean panty hose. Just steep the oak powder like you would tea leaves!

If using oak chips:

  • Sanitize your oak chips before adding them to the wine. Accomplish this by thoroughly dissolving one crushed Campden tablet in a gallon of water. Add the chips, shake well, and let soak for twenty minutes before use.
  • Chips produce the greatest oak flavor in the first week, but can be left in longer for additional oak flavor and tannin.
  • To save you from having to rack the wine off the chips, make a plastic tube for the oak. Take a plastic tube slightly smaller than the neck of the carboy. Block one end and drill 1/16-inch holes through the entire length of the tube. Add the oak chips to this tube and suspend it in the wine. When the desired flavor is achieved, pull out the tube!

General tips:

  • Until you get the hang of it, start small. You can always add more oak, but you can't take it away!
  • Keep good records so you can duplicate or adjust future batches of wine.

Clicking on any of the reference links below will open a new browser window: