Q: Is eliminating the barrel from the equation eliminating the romance of a cellar full of barrels? And do consumers care to know that their wine was oaked in a more cost effective fashion?
There is nothing romantic about the corpses of 200-year-old French oak trees stacked in their thousands to impress the tourists. It's as reprehensible as it is unnecessary and wasteful.
Don't get me wrong. I love what a barrel does in terms of slow aging, settling, marrying, and combining oxidative and reductive chemistries to create amazing aromatic complexities. But a fifty-year-old barrel, just like an old violin or guitar, does these things so much better than a new barrel. Barrels ought to be cherished and outlive their buyers.
Instead, all over Bordeaux, La Rioja and California, barrels are cut up for firewood after a single filling. It's environmentally reprehensible and makes terrible wine. Well-made chips made from the 75% of perfect wood left over from the barrel construction process and roasted in rolling drums like coffee beans are much easier to control in extracting the proper compounds in the right amounts.
You won't find a lot of winemakers who'll tell you this, but it's a point of view I feel strongly about, the subject of a whole chapter in Postmodern Winemaking. Consumers should also consider that this ridiculous practice adds about $10 to the cost of their wine.
In my colleagues' defense, I will stipulate that there are an awful lot of badly made barrel alternatives out there, but there are also plenty of lousy barrels, and even the best have technical problems intrinsic to the challenge of firing a barrel for flavor simultaneously with its real job, which is to bend the staves. Also, barrels have their untoasted wood buried deep in the stave where it rests until the wine has penetrated deep enough to extract it, just at the worst time, immediately before bottling.
Winemakers are an extremely conservative bunch, and barrels are all they know. Every year, alternatives improve in quality and more and more winemakers come into my camp as they cautiously experiment with them. We all can help by educating consumers about the logic of barrel conservation, even for the top wines. I haven't bought a new barrel in twenty years, and you can bet I age my $100 Cabernet in the oldest barrels I can find. If I need oak extractives, I will use chips. So shoot me.