How to Oak Your Wine
The Great Oaken Accident
| Contact Means Flavoring
Methods of Oaking | How and
When to Oak | Oaking Hints and Tricks |
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
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
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.
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.
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).
Traditional, time-proven method for oaking large quantities
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
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!
- 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
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