The use of oak barrels in wine fermentation and aging increases wine aromatic complexity and improves overall quality. Despite a higher price tag, this technique is often used for red and some white wine aging. Due to higher costs, and other factors, many have sought alternatives that can produce a very similar style/quality wine at a fraction of the price. Most of you are already familiar with the use of oak chips in wine. Oak chips are typically made from wood already utilized for wine barrels, and undergo similar toasting treatments to provide the aromas, flavors, and aging characteristics desired. Because of the increased surface area available by the small-sized chips, winemakers don’t need to use very many oak chips compared to the size of the barrel that would be needed to achieve comparable results.
Another way to impart oak flavors into wine, which isn’t as common but has been studied a bit in the literature, is oak extract application on grapes or grape vines. While studies have shown this sort of treatment may produce similar aromatic and sensory characteristics in the finished wine as a wood-aged treatment would, it’s likely just a way to get a “flavor now!” response and not a functional aging ability.
Of course, there are many other oak alternatives utilized in commercial especially home winemaking, but I won’t go into that now.
One new study, currently available online and to be published in print in October 2018 in the journal Food Chemistry, aimed to add one more potential oak alternative to the winemakers’ arsenal that I wasn’t expecting: grapevine shoots. Partially a response to growing demand for oak barrel alternatives, and partially a response to the amount of physical waste generated after the grape harvest, a team of Spanish researchers aimed to evaluate the use of grapevine shoot “chips” (toasted) as an alternative to oak chips in winemaking …