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Oak Alternatives: Powder, Chips, Blocks, Beads, Bullets and Stainless Barrels

August 16th, 2014 by Dean Ricker

Filed under: Skolnik Newsletter, Wine

One of the more common uses of Skolnik stainless steel wine barrels is for storage of wine for topping off, but with ever increasing frequency stainless steel wine barrels are being used for aging and fermentation. With modern day aging techniques and oak alternatives, stainless steel wine barrels have become a popular and sustainable alternative to oak barrels. One of the more popular oak alternatives used with stainless steel wine barrels is oak powder. Oak powder is a secret weapon in winemaking. Oak powder is not just used for flavor or aroma. While it may increase the perception of oak in the final wine, this is just a byproduct of its true use, which is to stabilize color and to decrease the vegetal aromas, especially but not exclusively in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Another common alternative is untoasted oak powder and chips, while untoasted powder doesn’t add the toasted and vanilla aromas one generally associates with toasted oak, they do perform similarly in stabilizing wine color, decreasing vegetal aromas and in rounding out the mid-palate of the final wine as toasted oak powder. Untoasted chips can be used at fermentation or in the first month after fermentation. Small Chips are defined by whether or not they are small enough to pass through a pump. This enables the chips to be used loose at fermentation, much like oak powder. It should be noted that the pump is assumed to be a 2Ā½-inch bore or larger positive displacement pump since some of the other pump designs are less able to deal with suspended solids. Small chip can be used much the same way as oak powder. They can be added loose in the fermenter rather than in bags after fermentation. For white wines, which effectively means really inexpensive Chardonnay, small chips can be added at fermentation but are best used with infusion bags so that chips don’t interfere with lees recovery. Large oak chips are generally used in infusion bags rather than loose. This means that they are usually used after fermentation. When used after fermentation but in the absence of MOX, large chips seem to extract slightly slower than small chips, but the difference is really negligible. They offer a pretty good balance between nose and palate, but this may simply be because large chips are my general-purpose oak alternative format. Blocks, beads and ‘bullets’ are larger and more finished than a chip, but smaller than a stave. Oak blocks, beads and bullets occupy the middle ground between chips and staves. The individual block sizes can range anywhere from about 1/2-inch cubes to eight-inch long mini-staves. It is normally suggested that using a larger and smoother chunk of wood emphasizes the oak’s relative effect on the palate or texture of a wine as compared to the nose, at the expense of increasing the extraction time needed. Used properly, oak alternatives and stainless steel wine barrels, are giving wine makers a wider array of modern day wine making techniques.

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