Italian Wine News


Oak Alternatives, or The American Way
Staff Writer – March 16, 2004

Some time ago, I was reading an interesting article by Jordan Mackay"Playing With Fire / Love It or Hate It, Oak Adds a Dose of Character to Wine", in The San Francisco Chronicle. It spoke about how, after grapes, oak is the most important ingredient in modern wine making. The article debated the value of the "oaky" flavor in wines according to winemakers and consumers, as well as the use, and overuse, of oak to add flavor to the wine.

Toasting oak barrel s

Oak wine barrels being fire roasted at Demptos Napa Cooperage
Photo by Craig Lee The San Francisco Chronicle - ©2004

A perfect example of heavy use of oak to flavor wine is the well known, and much debated, California Chardonnay.

What strikes a cord in me however, is the content of the table below, which points to alternative methods to add oak flavor to a wine other than letting it rest and age gracefully in new barrels.

Recently, WineCountry.IT published some articles highlighting the frustration of the Italian Coldiretti (the Association of Agricultural Growers), at the proposal of the European Community to amend international commercial rules to "free" 17 wine denominations that were currently reserved to Italy.

Putting the two things together made me think that this could be a good example to use in trying to explain the Italian and European growers' associations strong stand in defense of the traditional names for food and wines.

The European wine production techniques, and the legal statutes and bodies that protect and enforce them, are very strict and were developed in century of observation and experiments in grape growing and wine making.

Italy's vineyard extension is less than it was a decade ago because the overseeing authority demanded the destruction of certain vines and regulates which grapes can be planted in the various wine zones. All this was done to improve quality, though it meant reducing the overall production.

Comparing such attitudes with the practice of non-European wineries to "chip", "cube", "dust" or "marble" their wines with oak to achieve the wanted flavor in less time and at a lower cost, made me understand the great frustration of the European growers and producers. By the way, adding oak in any form to the wine, other than letting it age in oak barrels or barriques, in Italy is illegal.

The strict Italian production rules contribute to explaining the structure, texture and overall quality of Italian wines, which is generally more complex and satisfying when compared to US wines in the same price range. The gap is even more noticeable in medium to low priced wines.

The problem with the liberalization of typical names and denomination, is that it is foreseeable in the future to find an Italian Amarone DOC from the Valpolicella area side by side with a, let's say, US made one, produced disregarding the traditional techniques but made to imitate the taste of the original product. In this case, the consumer that will buy the imitation, which will be somewhat similar but not quite, may dismiss the type of wine as over-hyped without having ever tasted the real thing.

It would be probably better, and more honest to the consumer, calling the imitation "styled after" as in "Amarone-Style, Made in the USA".

The information below was provided by Phil Burton of Napa's Barrel Builders to Jordan Mackay and published originally on The San Francisco ChronicleTM.

Oak chips, cubes, marbles
Available in all shapes and sizes and can be made of French or American oak. Normally used in large tanks, oak in these forms can be dumped loose or put in a mesh bag to steep.


Ten-thousand gallons of wine in French oak chips costs roughly $600. The same amount of wine in new French oak barrels costs about $112,000. (Over the chips' four-year life span, the cost is about $28,000 per year.)


Cheap. Low maintenance. Fast. Can add oak flavoring in weeks that would take years of barrel aging.


Quality suffers and doesn't provide a barrel's slow oxidation. Can render bitter tannins and flavors of sawdust.

Oak staves
French or American oak planks can be inserted and suspended into barrels or tanks.


One standard size barrel with French oak inserts is about $85.


Can be used with barrels. The inserts provide the oak flavoring, the barrels provide the oxidation and aging.


Slightly more expensive than chips. Two uses maximum. If used in a tank, still provides no oxidative properties.

Oak "dust"
French or American oak "dust" can have varying levels of toast. Added at fermentation, the dust settles with the lees and is ultimately filtered out. According to Aurelia Rivier of Nadalier Cooperage in Napa, dust does not confer oak flavoring, but rather color stabilization and some tannin. It is meant to be used with lesser quality grapes and is often used in combination with other oak treatments.


$1 per pound, with about two pounds of dust per ton of must (juice and pulp produced by crushing or pressing grapes.).


Stabilizes color and improves body of wine. Adds tannins.


Tannins can be raw and aggressive. Still requires other oak treatment (chips, barrels) to add oak flavor. Inferior grapes can only be improved so much by additives.

An old technique in which the barrel is taken apart and the insides of the staves, which are saturated with wine, are shaved off to expose untainted wood. The barrel is then rebuilt and retoasted.


$50-$60 per barrel to shave and retoast


Gives both barrel aging and new-oak character to wine without having to buy a new barrel.


Some of the wine-soaked wood is difficult to shave away and can impart undesirable flavors to a wine if not removed. The barrel is now thinner, which means the wine will mature and oxidize at a faster rate and will require more maintenance from the winemaker.

(*) Jordan Mackay is the San Francisco-based wine and spirits editor for 7x7 and wine columnist for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. E-mail him

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