In The Impoverished Student's Book of Cookery, Drinkery and Housekeepery, Jay F Rosenberg offers "A Brief Essay on Horsemeat" in which he advances the thesis that the only reason we do not consume the flesh of a horse is that there is no cute sexy name for it. We don't speak of eating cow, pig and baby sheep. I'm not sure I agree, for I do feel humans are the better for respecting our noble synergies with Labradour Retrievers, Tonkinese cats and Arabian stallions, and it even grieves me to see the gentle affable skate on a menu.
But Jay has a point, and in winemaking, too often a name evokes much confusion. Somebody please tell me the difference between artesanality and manipulation! So it is quite sad that there exists no cute sexy name for an oak chip. In France they are called "eclats", which are like bolts of lightning -- huzzah!. But here we haven't spun it yet. Much ignorance and misconception among winemakers bars us from this the most proper method for obtaining oak extractables with control, predictability, and (only incidentally) economy. And the media are no help. Who would admit to using anything but the all-holy barrel?
And indeed, barrels are the best way to age and harmonize wine. Besides providing a lower head pressure on the lees, hence less reductive variability such as you get in a tank, they breathe off aromas such as ML byproducts and other funk. A well made wine mellows and integrates well in a barrel, preferrably a very old one with nothing further to extract.
I'm sorry, but I will speak my mind. New barrels are for ignorant winemakers. J. Chave (of the Parker 100-point Hermitages) told me he hasn't purchased a new barrel in his life, and uses only wood his grandfather bought. Oak is extremely variable and unpredictable in its composition, and thus is a very poor format for controlling extractives. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, a new barrel is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're gonna get. Furthermore, the extraction is too slow, so you never know if the result is correct until it is too late to make adjustments. For consistency of extractives, you need a smaller format which can be blended for consistency.
But dust, the cheapest way to buy oak, is TOO finely divided, and only strips wine. Staves are too big. It's the chip -- the well cured chip from a good forest, seasoned with care and blended for consistency -- that is the smart winemaker's most effective tool.
I met Jimmy Beteau of Boise France oak chips in 1999, and I haven't bought a new barrel since, even for my $100 cabernet. In concept, a barrel is for many reasons the worst format for obtaining oak extractables. First, it is constructed to present the functions of oak backwards to what is desirable. First you get heavy toast, which if exposed to fermenting wine amplifies the HMF to a Worcestershire sauce character. Then after a year or two, the wine penetrates beyond the surface and only the raw green wood is extracted, just when the wine is suposed to be mellowing in preparation for bottling.
In working with my winery clients, I start by condemning the word "oak" from the language, because it's too vague. You can't discuss "oak," and more than as a skier you can profitably talk about "snow." Too many kinds! You need to subdivide the types.
Oak extractables really fall into seven functional categories:
-Co-pigmentation / co-extraction during fermentation (impossible for barrels for reds, easy with chips)
-Reactive (untoasted, unpolymerized) tannin for structure (only with cured, untoasted small format wood)
-Aromatic Integration from refined structure and fatness
-Curing aromatics (whisky lactone, spice)
-Toast aromatics (vanilla, espresso)
You can't get these functions consistently with barrels.
Furthermore, French oak trees are a non-renewable resource planted 200 years ago by Napoleon for ship building. Through ignorance and prejudice we throw away 75% of the high quality wood from these trees -- triangular trimmings from stave making --as useless leftovers from barrel manufacture, which is really a fine oak furniture process That means we're deforesting Alliers at four times the rate we need to because of the preciousness and ignorance of winemakers. It's a disgrace.
We are swimming upstream on this. There is a lot of prejudice against oak alternatives. Much is deserved, because they are often made by sloppy amateur companies and usually cured and toasted carelessly.
Staves, the highest priced barrel substitute, give oak alternatives a bad name because despite their high cost they are considerably worse than barrels. The advertising is that you can make a tank perform like a barrel and save labor and floorspace. Not. I once worked oxygen into two supposedly identical 50,000 gal tanks of merlot stacked with loads of very expensive staves off the same truck. One tank took 35 barrel equivalents for 3 weeks, the other 75 BEQ for six weeks. It shows you that you can't expect consistent results from staves. Winemakers pay four times what they should for staves because of fears about dry tannins from exposed endgrain, simply because they haven't looked into oak physiology. Rays which carry tannins to the wine are arranged perpendicular to the grain.
Boise France is a great secret weapon. They have a dozen preparations -- different toast temperatures and other variations, all very consistent products made from 18 month air-cured Alliers. They are very expensive compared to other chips and ridiculously cheap compared to barrels, as well as superior in every way for winemaking and for the environment.
But they need a better name.