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Adding Oak To Your Homemade Wines

By Ed Kraus

Adding toasted oak chips  to a wine is one of the most fascinating aspect of making wine. There are many different types of sensational changes that can occur in a wine's character with proper oaking of a wine. Its effects at times can be so dramatic as to seem mystical in nature. 


First, A Little History On Wood And Wine

It was more like evolution than a plan, that the effects of oak ever came to be an integral part of wine. The marriage of oak with wine was created by happenstance over the course of centuries. Certainly, it would be nice to think that adding oak to wine was originally done by some masterful design rather then some whimsical alignment of circumstances, but that is simply not the case.

It was during a period when European wine producers were no longer just providers to their local community and surrounding townships. They were becoming providers to other nations and, eventually by the 1500's, New Worlds. It was an ever expanding economy whose reaches where stemming further and further from the vine-rooted soils from which they came. Having a means of transporting these wines to these vast outreaches was vital to the profitable growth of any wine producer.

Throughout the time of this expanding European economy and even back to the fall of the Roman Empire, wooden barrels had been the major means of transporting goods for great distances. Everything from water, to olive oil, to even fish was being transported by wooden barrels, and so to was the case for wine. Simply put, wooden barrels were the ever-present choice of the day for transporting perishable goods.

Ironically, in the earlier centuries of mass barrel usage, winemakers searched for woods that had little to no effect on their wines. Barrels were viewed as a necessary evil, an evil that was required to provide transportation, but only helped to accommodate the rapid deterioration of their wines. So, their search for woods with little to no effect seemed justly founded, and in many cases they were right. There were many hard woods being used for barrel production during this time that--in fact--did have significant negative effects on a wine's flavor and condition.

French producers during this time preferred oak woods from the Baltic region that lied north and east of Poland rather then from there now famous homeland forests. The oaks from these regions had less "effect" on their wines, something they wanted to avoid. It wasn't until as late as the early 1700's that some wine producers began to discover the useful benefits of casking wines in properly selected oak woods--not just for shipping, but for aging as well.


How Does Oak Affect A Wine?

Oak wood can affect a wine in a lot of ways--some good, some bad. Oak aging even affects wines in ways that we do not yet fully understand. But, if oak aging is done correctly the major benefits to your wine will be as follows:

1. Improved stability in the wine's clarity and color.

2. A reduction or softening of the harsher characters that are commonly associated with younger wines.

3. And, the addition of wood flavors that give an overall smoother and deeper texture to the wine.


IMPROVED STABILITY:
During the oak aging process tannins are slowly released from the wood into the wine. With time, these tannins have the benefit of adding stability to the wine's color and clarity. Tannin is a protein that, when added, causes unstable protein compounds in that wine to bond together and settle to the bottom in a reasonable amount of time.

These are compounds that, if not dealt with during bulk aging, could possibly settle out later in the wine bottle. Some of these elements are grape tannins, color molecules and a various array of other phenolic compounds.

These instabilities can be view quite often by simply going to your local wine shop and holding a few bottles of red wine upside-down. By doing so you will discover that, on occasion, certain bottles will have a dark, dusty deposit that has collected and stuck to the bottom. These deposits are a small sampling of the various proteins that oak aging helps to reduce or eliminate all together.


SOFTENING OF HARSH CHARACTERS:
A second way in which a wine is improved with oak aging, has to do with the oak wine barrel itself. For lack of a better term, wine barrels breath correctly. That is to say, they allow a slow infusion of oxygen into the wine in just the right amount to benefit the aging process. This slow, low-level of oxidation tends to help soften the remaining tannic flavors and improve the wine's aroma by helping to release its natural, fruity elements.


ADDITION OF WOOD CHARACTER:
Oak barrel aging also improves a wine by simply adding its own flavor to the wine. The oaks used to produce wine barrels are carefully chosen based on the flavor qualities they posses. There are many different flavor compounds in oak that influence the flavor in wine, the most influential being vanillin. This compound can add flavors to the wine ranging from coconut, to vanilla, to even Caramel depending on the variety of oak selected and how it is prepared.

Wine barrels are carefully toasted on their inner walls. Toasting helps to concentrate these flavor compounds and rise them to the surface of the wood where they can be more readily infused into the wine. The amount of toasting done can bring out different flavors. Lighter toastings are associated with coconut, whereas the heavier toastings are more liken to Carmel.


How Long Should You Age A Wine On Oak?

The amount of time a wine needs to be aged on oak varies drastically from one situation to the next. Wineries typically will age their wines between 6 months and 2 years, whereas the home winemaker using a new 5 gallon barrel, may only need to oak age their wine for one month. There are several factors that come into play:


THE SIZE OF THE BARREL:
If you do the math, you will discover that the surface contact area that a 5 gallon barrel provides per gallon of wine verses a 50 gallon barrel is roughly double. One can deduct from this that a 5 gallon wine barrel will impart its wood characters on to the wine at twice the rate of a 50 gallon barrel and marginally so with sizes in between.

THE AGE OF THE BARREL:
The more times an oak wine barrel has been used, the slower its effect will be on a wine. Which means, the wine will need to remain in the barrel longer as the number of uses increases. A winery will rotate a percentage or their barrel stock out each year to help even-up the amount barrel aging their wines will need from one year to the next.

THE LEVEL OF TOASTING:
The amount of toasting that has been done to a barrel will play part in the amount of "wood" a wine can actually take. Heavier toastings may be fine for heavier, Burgundy type wines, but less so for a Zinfandel.

THE VARIETY OF OAK USED:
There is a distinction that can be made between American oak and French oaks. American oaks tend to do better with medium to lighter toastings and have a character that leans towards coconut, whereas French oaks are more vanilla to Carmel in character. If the same wine was aged in both types of barrels, the skilled winemaker would eventually come to the conclusion that wine would have to come out of one cask before the other to obtain optimum character. However, which oak barrel would be emptied first, American or French, would depend on the particular wine that is being aged.


What Does This All Mean For The Home Winemaker?

First, as a home winemaker you have a choice as to whether you want to incorporate oak aging into your wine or not. Some wines benefit significantly from this type of treatment; others only marginally; and some not at all. For example, there are many wines made from white grapes that you will find on today's market which rarely touch oak wood.

Some of the more popular examples of un-oaked white wines are: Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Riesling. And just the same, there are white wines that do improve with oak aging, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Most red grape wines do improve with some oak aging. Prime examples of these wines are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Beaujolais, and there are many others as well.

Some fruit wines do not improve much when oaked aged, such as peach or apricot wines. But, the opposite does hold true for most wines made from smaller berries, such as elderberry or blackberry. These particular fruit wines tend to mature more quickly when properly aged on oak.

Some fruits are simply an experiment when it comes to oak aging. For example, persimmon wine may be excellent or horrible with oak aging. There's really no specific information available as to whether it will improve or hurt such a wine. So, unless you know someone who has personal experience in such an endeavor, you might be in a position of experimentation when it comes to oaking certain fruit wines. With time you will be able to apply your own experiences to better judgment.

Regardless of the type of wine your are making, your best course of action is to investigate a little on the particular style of wine that you intend to make, before coming to any conclusions about oaking. In the case of using packaged home wine making kits such as our California Connoisseur, European Select or Legacy brands, they will include small packages of oak powder to incorporate into the wine recipe as the producers feel appropriate to the type.


How To Go About Oak Aging Your Homemade Wines

There are several ways you can go about oak aging your homemade wine if you choose to do so. Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages:

1. You can go the traditional method of actually aging your wine in an french oak wine barrel.

2. You can employ the use of toasted oak chips while the wine is being bulk aged in a carboy or similar wine fermenting container.

3. You can use oak powder during fermentation, such as the case with the packaged wine making ingredient kits mentioned earlier.

4. Or, you can add Oak Extractive to taste at bottling time.


OAK BARRELS:
Speaking strictly from a flavor stand-point, an oak wine barrel is the best way you can go. Not only does it put the wine in contact with oak, it also allows a slow, controlled amount of oxygen into the wine that (as stated in Part I of this article) increases the wine's rate of maturity as well.

The down-side of the wine barrel is cost. While these barrels will provide many years of service if properly cared for, they are a hefty investment for the average home winemaker.

Maintenance of the barrel must be considered too. Once a barrel is filled, it should always be full, whether it be with wine or sulfited water. You can get away with a day or two of dry storage if a Sulfur Strip is burned inside the barrel before-hand. But, neglecting a barrel in any other way will eventually lead to its spoilage. While there are methods of attempting to bring a spoiled barrel back to its original sweetness, this is definitely not a situation you want to be in.


TOASTED OAK CHIPS:
Using Toasted Oak Chips has the advantages of convenience and cost. You simply add them to the wine after the fermentation has completed and has had time to clear away from the settlings. The disadvantage is you do not gain the maturing effects of slowly infused oxygen that the oak barrel can naturally provide.

Most winemakers will throw the chips into the wine loose. They will float on top for the first few days but will eventually sink to the bottom. The only exception to this may be a few bits here and there. If you like, you can use what is called a hop bag to contain the chips while they are in the wine. The "hop bag" is what beer makers use to contain their hops while they are being incorporated into the beer, but it also works quite nicely for keeping Oak Chips collected.

The Oak Chips do need to be treated before adding them to your wine. There are two common methods that are used to do this. The first, is to simply boil them in water for a few minutes. The second, is to put them in a 24 hour bath of cold water and Sodium Bisulfite at the rate of a 1/4 teaspoon per quart of water. Keep the mix sealed in a jar or similar during this time.

The amount of Oak Chips you will want to use varies, but usually it will be in the area of 1 to 2 ounces for every 5 to 6 gallon batch of wine.


OAK POWDER:
The advantage of using Oak Powder is, again, convenience. It is easier to use than both an oak wine barrel or Oak Chips. Oak Powder is normally associated with wine ingredient kits. This is how most kit producers provide the oak that is to be added to a particular kit.

The kit producers choose powdered oak for two reasons. Its ease of use, as mentioned above, and the fact that Oak Powder can be added during a fermentation without interfering with the fermentation itself or the racking (siphoning) that will follow. Adding oak during a fermentation allows these wines to be much better flavored at 28 days, which is the time-frame that these producers often advertise their wines to be ready.

While you can use Powdered Oak in wines on your own, we do not recommend adding it during a fermentation. The reason is very simple. You do not know if you are adding too much oak, or not enough. There is no way to judge how much to add while the wine is still fermenting. With pre-packaged wine ingredient kits this is not an issue. These kits provide the best amount for that particular kit based on trials performed by the kit producers.

OAK EXTRACTIVES:
This is the most convenient way of all to add oak character to your wine. An Oak Extractive is simply a liquid that you add to a wine to taste. The effect is immediate and quite noticeable. Wineries will quite often use Oak Extractives at bottling time as a final tweak to the wine's flavor. The Oak Extractive will increase the velvety, vanilla flavors that are associated with oak aging.

The down-side is that, while you are adding some wonderful flavors to the wine, you are not gaining any of the maturing effects that oak wood can have on a wine. Not only does oak wood add flavor to the wine, but oak wood also improves the stability of its color and clarity. Oak wood also reduces the harsher flavors that tannin sometimes brings to a wine. These are all benefits that are missing when using Oak Extractive in place of barrel aging.


As A Final Word...

Realize that many fabulous wines can be made without the use of any oak at all. Even wines that are traditionally aged on oak, such as Cabernet or Pinot Noir, can be made by the home winemaker without oak of any kind and still end up with stellar results. And, as noted earlier, there are some wines that even do better if not oaked.

You may even discover that you are a wine drinker that prefers their wine with no woody characters regardless of type. Personal tastes are important. As a home winemaker you have the amazing ability to tailor your wines to suite you, a very valuable benefit that should not be ignored.

So, when adding wood to wine, step carefully. Monitor the progression of the wine you have aging on oak every 2 or 3 weeks. If using Oak Extractives, try adding some to a portion of your wine first to see if the effects are to your liking, not the entire batch.

And, most of all, have fun.

Browse our wine making supplies and wine making equipment departments to make sure you everything you need!

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Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.