Ask Wine Wizard

Is Oak Sanitation Necessary?


Brent Kumfer — Carmel, Indiana asks,

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on preparing oak additions, like oak chips, cubes, or spirals, before adding them to my must or wine. Should they be boiled or sanitized in some way before adding or do I just toss them in? I have always boiled mine for 10 minutes but wonder with all the oak-y liquid that’s left if I just got rid of most of the flavor.


I never boil or rinse my chips because, you’re right, that’ll strip them of the valuable flavor and aroma right off the bat. The one thing you need to do first, either before you buy chips or before you add them to your wine batch, is to smell them. If they smell moldy, musty, or like TCA (like the water in bagged baby carrots — that’s a great everyday example of what TCA smells like, because they wash those babies in chlorinated water, by the way) then toss those chips or wood out right away. If you can smell the oak pieces you’re going to buy before you buy them, i.e. if the shop lets you sniff the bag you’re about to buy, make sure they smell sweet, slightly toasted (if that’s what you’re buying), and smells like something you’d like to put in your wine. If you smell anything off, do not buy them. Once you get them home, however, it’s up to you to put them in your wine right away, or to store them correctly, away from moisture.

The one thing you need to do first, either before you buy chips or before you add them to your wine batch, is to smell them.

Only buy chips and wood from reputable suppliers with good turnover. Try to ensure your oak products are sold in their original packaging or make sure your supplier can tell you their chip/wood packaging policy if they re-bag in smaller quantities. I love the spirals for neutral barrels — I think they add really good quality and are super easy to use. I use the ones from The Barrel Mill — good flavor and reasonably priced. For my stainless and glass vessels I like Stavin beans and Radoux’s staves.

Once you buy them you should use them. Opened bags of wood chips are notorious for not storing well, and if they get wet or come into contact with chlorinated water, that’s a perfect recipe for TCA and molds in your cellar and wine. If you’re small-scale and don’t want to spend the money on a big 10-kg (22-lb.) sack of fresh oak beans from a supplier, try to get into a buying scheme with some friends or other members of a home winemaking club. This is something I recommend doing with most supplies anyway — that way everyone’s getting fresh, professional-grade chemicals.

Response by Alison Crowe.