Most of us heard about the snappy response of one of South Africa’s greatest winemakers after a lady asked him about the use of oak alternatives…

Lady (living encyclopedia of wine knowledge): “Do you use oak alternatives like chips, dust, staves and balls?

Winemaker (focused and slightly annoyed): “Lady, do you know what artificial insemination is?”

Lady (living encyclopedia of veterinary science): “Why, yes of course!”

Winemaker (with a grin): “Lady, which do you prefer?”

The question remains: Can the use of oak alternatives benefit the wine to such an extent that it can fully replace the use of barrels, i.e. that it induce in wine all the required reactions without jeopardizing the final wine’s quality and/or style?

There certainly are opposing answers to this question!

The “no” school – Investigations into oak derived products and their influence on wine quality yielded certain disadvantages, e.g. no retrieval of complexity compared to oak barrels, occurrence of hydrogen sulfide on wines associated with fermentation on chips and the precipitation of yellow, semi-crystalline substance as a result of wines treated with sawdust or shavings because of extracted ellagic acid. There is also a general lack of information concerning the influence of oxygen provided by oak derived products and its contribution towards wine quality.

The “yes” school – There are, however, important advantages as well.  We all took note of the significant cost reduction in the use of oak derived products opposed to the use of barrels. The addition of oak staves, chips, shavings or powder is a more rapid and economical method of oak treatment. Increased surface area of these oak derived products results in more significant rates of extraction. Some researchers documented the use of 7g/L of oak chips during white wine fermentation to increase the favorable perception of a tasting panel. Ducournau et al. (1999) documented oak chips to be more adapted for consistent toasting, resulting in more homogeneous lots. Zoecklein noted the use of oak derived products in combination with micro-oxygenation to result in wines with increased body, soft tannins, stabile color and enhancement of fruit and oak aroma integration (Zoecklein et al., 2002).

My personal conviction? Staves work as well as barrels. Nevertheless – we are debating the wrong issue here. Perhaps the right question should be: “How does the flavor profile of my wine suit the market where I try to flog it? How can I ensure consistency in my wine in a financially viable way?” Are we afraid of the answers, because we simply do not have them? Or do we acknowledge the fact that we squander money based on our personal opinions of the consumer, what they want, how they want it and where?

Bertus Fourie is a winemaker, turned Enology lecturer and creator of the Barista coffee Pinotage.