No, that’s not a new breakfast cereal or a dietary supplement, it’s the terminology used by and ever-growing number of winemakers around the globe when referring to what is more correctly known as ‘oak alternatives’.
Oak barrels originally became part of winemaking for a single reason – they were a holding vessel, plain and simple. They had the added benefit of having the ability to be easily moved (i.e. rolled) around a winery. Although someone, somewhere possibly noticed that there was a correlation between how long a wine was stored in barrel and what it tasted like, it would have been a moot discovery since wine was stored in barrels, end of story. Of course, this is not the end of the story. As progress provided alternative holding vessels, (most notably stainless steel) many producers – especially new world producers – quickly adopted them for numerous reasons, among them length of life, sanitation advantages and temperature modifying benefits. However…quality minded producers soon discovered that something was missing; their well-made wines lacked complexity, concentration and longevity compared to more ‘traditionally’ made wines. It was ascertained that it was the missing barrels that caused this deficiency. Time proved that barrels not only affected the wine’s flavor, but the fractional passage of oxygen through the barrels pores had beneficial effects as well. So for some wines, the barrel was back.
It is now generally agreed, that certain wines are beautified when the flavor of tasty oak is added, so an easy decision for a winery to make, right? Not so much. You see, barrels are expensive. Run of the mill versions made from American oak (the bottom of the barrel, if you’ll forgive us) cost $400 or so. French oak barrels range from $800 upwards to $1,500 for the best ‘designer’ versions. If a winery wants to produce a wine that retails for say $10-$20 a bottle with a nice kiss of oak, guess what? Correct, the math doesn’t work (a barrel holds 25 cases, in case you want to run the numbers yourself). But it’s a wine drinker’s right to drink a rich, spicy, vanilla-flecked wine without having to spend $30, $40 and more per bottle, is it not? Maybe.
Under the heading of “If You Build a Better Mousetrap”, some ingenious winemakers surmised that one could impart the flavor of oak to wine in ways other than letting the wine rest in expensive barrels. It started with ‘inner staves’ where loose barrels staves were inserted into an old barrel whose wood flavor had been mostly extracted / depleted and quickly moved to doing the same thing in stainless steel tanks using oak products in a multitude of configurations. Sticks, balls, chips, even oak powder (in tea-bag like form). Each imparts a slightly different flavor on the wine, as well as different costs. It has now grown to such a bona-fide practice that there are companies which specialize in nothing but oak-alt products, as well as the barrel producers themselves offering numerous products as an adjunct to their principal product. A winery can even order highly specialized products based on what they are trying to impart to their wines, with names like ‘high vanilla’, ‘high spice’, and ‘high toast’. Amazing.
However, there is a problem with using this more economical form of oak: barrels do more to a wine than just impart the flavor of oak. As mentioned above, since oak is not airtight, small amounts of oxygen are imparted into the wine as the barrel ‘breathes’ while holding its contents. This interaction with oxygen has all kinds of beneficial impact on the wines from making it more stable, to helping to intensify and stabilize the color. So sticking oak staves into a stainless steel tank doesn’t really produce the same effects that barrels produce. But, the ingenuity of mankind is endless and someone came up with a unique way of introducing tiny quantities of oxygen into tanks that emulates the slow introduction of oxygen through oak staves in a barrel. Called micro-oxygenation it has quickly become one of the handiest tools in a modern winemaker’s bag of tricks. We dare say that there is nary a red wine in your store or restaurant under $15 that hasn’t seen the use of oak alternatives, micro-ox, or both (and a bunch of whites too).
Some opine that wines produced this way are not traditional or that the wines are inauthentic, but that was asserted in the early days of stainless steel tanks, temperature controlled fermentors, laboratory yeasts, must concentrators, filters and all manner of things that have made modern wine so much better than most wines of old. We say ‘if it makes a better wine, or if it can help produce wine more economically, just do it.’ Get over the barrel…