Ask Wine Wizard

The Oak Necessities

TroubleShooting

Lettie Contreras — Atascadero, California asks,
Q

I’ve just started making wine at home and I’m not committed enough to the hobby to drop $1,500 USD (or more!) on a French or American oak barrel, let alone make 59 gallons (225 L) (that’s almost 25 cases) of wine. I want to make a good red, maybe this year with a kit and maybe with grapes if I can find some — what are the ways I can make a smaller batch yet still get some oak aromas and flavors into my finished product without breaking the bank? And how do I use them?

A
I hear you about not wanting to drop that kind of cash for a new barrel, especially as a new hobbyist. If you spread the cost of “good use” years for a new barrel over the volume of wine produced (let’s say three years of oak flavor extraction over 177 gallons (670 L) of wine — wine per batch x 3 vintages), you’re looking at an added cost of $8.47 per gallon ($2.23 per L) for the privilege of aging your wine in a $1,500 new French oak barrel. No wonder so many winemakers balk at that kind of spend and throw their hands up, sticking to oak-free styles like Sauvignon Blanc. Especially for small-batch winemakers (because yes, 25 cases is a LOT of wine!) barrel alternatives, what I like to call non-coopered oak, can be a lifeline. Oak chips, cubes, segments, and even small “staves” (which look like a wooden yardstick) can all be used to creative effect in smaller batches. Luckily, the quality and availability of different toasts and blends has increased astronomically in the last ten years
Response by Alison Crowe.