While browsing through the brochures of an alternative oak supplier, I couldn’t help but realise the similarity between buying alternative oak products and buying a milkshake – the flavour profiles for both are “vanilla, coffee and butterscotch”, while if you make Pinotage, I’m pretty certain that you’ll be able to tweak a banana flavour as well! If manipulating the character of wine has become so predictable, one cannot help but wonder how far we are from a stage where winemakers are simply allowed to add the real thing (vanilla, coffee of butterscotch), legally. The surge in the use of wood alternatives could be ascribed to economical restraints as well as relaxed regulatory legislation in Old World producing countries. Barrels are expensive, a hassle to maintain and lose most of their value in the first year or even month of use, while alternatives like staves, chips and all kinds of inserts are cheap and easy – and usually come with a three-step protocol.
To add to this, alternative oaking methods can be viewed as a ‘greener’ practice, since these products are often produced from the off cuts of the staves made for the traditional vessel. While there is a significant drop in global barrel sales, the prominence of wood in wine is increasing, suggesting an obvious increase in the use of alternatives. Ironically the influence of wood in top products is decreasing – with bigger barrels particularly gaining favour – while entry level stuff and conceptual wine brands are often basically oak-driven. Oenological problems or simply bad grapes could easily be masked by an oak overdose, eliminating the need for lower yielding, properly managed vineyards or any significance of terroir.
The question is, where should the line be drawn – How toasted is too toasted? And if stricter measures are employed to regulate when and how oak is utilised, could this be enforced or tested? Perhaps an indication of the type and form of oak used, could become another requirement on labels – along with alcohol, sulphur, animal products and whatever else. The law that naturally regulates wine sales, styles and basically the entire global industry is, however, that of economical supply and demand.
Yes, winemakers play a deciding role in determining stylistic trends and fashions, but eventually the deciding factor is the consumer that buys that bottle of oaky Cabernet, unwooded Chardonnay or banana milkshake.