Dear Wine Wizard,
I make wine in five-gallon batches from juice that I buy in Canada. I also buy skins, stems, and small bags of toasted oak chips, then let it all age in five-gallon carboys. I have not been able to notice the oak flavor from these small bags of chips. Can you buy an oak plank, cut it into thin strips, and add that to the carboy to give an increased surface area? Also, what does the toasting add to the oak flavor, and can I do that with a blowtorch?
Wine Wizard replies: As opposed to heading off to your local lumber mill, it would be better if you head on over to your local home winemaking supply house and pick up a bigger bag (or a few bags) of oak chips especially for the purpose of home winemaking.
While you’re right in assuming that some of the oak you can buy at hardware stores is similar to the oak used to make barrels, it is far better to stick to the correct species (Quercus rober or Quercus alba) and the correct wood treatment for winemaking. The deal is this: Once the wood is cut for barrel making (or oak-chip making), it is treated in a very different way than oak used to make, say, a nice cabinet. Lumber that has been treated for building has not been subjected to the same sequence of steaming, aging, and toasting events that barrel wood has. Furthermore, wood preservatives (such as pentachlorophenol) are often sprayed onto cut building lumber, creating a great potential source of stinky TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, see below) in your wine.
So it’s best, and probably easiest, to stick with what’s out there on the market. It just seems like you need to use a few more chips. If you like a more toasty chip than you’ve been using, get some with a higher toast level (probably easier than getting out the blowtorch), and don’t forget to experiment with the amount used and the length of time you leave them in contact with your wine. Just dunking a “tea bag” of chips into a carboy once or twice won’t do it. For pronounced oak character, I like to leave a generous handful of high-toast chips in five-gallon carboys for a couple of days and then taste and smell a sample each consecutive day. I don’t like over-oaked wines, so I take it easy and taste as I go.
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