Advantages of Oak Barrels in Winemaking

Oak wine barrels are the classic choice for fermenting and aging wines, and offer a number of advantages compared to alternatives.

By Kinnek Knowledge Team  |  June 08, 2018

If you’re getting started in winemaking, or are have an existing winemaking business and are considering a switch from wine tanks to oak barrels, or vice-versa, then you may have some lingering concerns about what choice is best.

Historically speaking, steel tanks were a viable alternative for cheaper wines only.  In today’s industry, however, many wineries have replaced oak barrels with steel tanks for fermentation and aging.

What makes oak barrels a worthwhile choice despite industry trends?  Let’s take a look at some of the advantages.

Superior Aging Potential

As a general rule, wines stored in oak barrels have superior aging potential compared to those stored in steel tanks (with alternatives, such as oak chips or oak staves).  For example, if you make red wine in an oak barrel, then you’re providing your customer a product that will age far more gracefully than red wine that has been made in steel tank (which will oxidize and lose its character much more quickly).

Premium Association for High-End Brands

It’s not true that oak barrels are absolutely required for premium wines — in fact, many high-end wineries are switching to steel tanks for making white wines and lighter wines that are meant to be consumed while “young.”  However, in the wine business, it cannot be denied that there is a certain cachet associated the use of oak barrels.  In some circles, wines that undergo steel tank fermentation may be avoided altogether.  When come to a decision on the use of oak barrels or steel tanks, do be sure to carefully consider your audience and their reaction.

Used Options Are Available

Oak barrels are fairly expensive.  Some barrels cost up to $1,000 each, depending on their origin and cooperage.  In fact, it is the expense that often drives smaller wineries to seek out alternatives, such as steel tank fermentation and aging.

Fortunately, there are many ways to keep costs down.  First, oak barrels can be bought used, at a significant discount (though it’s important to consider that the oak may lose its ability to infuse after a number of “cycles,” so pay close attention to the aroma/flavor profile of your blend to ensure that the oak is powerful enough).  Second, oak barrels can be re-used several times over, defraying the initial cost.

Oak Alternatives Cannot Replicate Oak Barrels

It can be difficult to properly quantify the difference between oak barrels and various alternatives, such as oak chips and oak staves, but there are significant differences that are worth noting.  As an example, the surface area in contact with wine is limited, slowing the aging process down significantly when compared to alternatives — this gives the wine ample time to mature and properly infuse the aroma/flavor of oak into the blend.  Oftentimes, the use of alternatives can give the impression of oak, but it may be described as sitting on the “surface” of the wine.  For customers with a more discerning palate, this can be a serious issue.

Perhaps the biggest problem with steel tanks is that they are perfectly-sealed.  This means that there is no oxygenation during the aging process.  The micro-oxygenation that occurs in oak barrels (due to their porous nature) gives wines a creamier, richer texture and flavor profile that simply cannot be replicated with alternatives.

Barrel Functions as a Storage and Transportation Container

Another cost consideration that many wineries fail to take into account is the storage/transportation savings provided by oak barrels.  If you use a steel tank, you’ll have to purchase and make use of dedicated storage and transportation containers, which can not only be inefficient (from a labor perspective), but can also drive costs up unexpectedly.  By contrast, oak barrels are designed to be stored and transported between facilities with ease, and there are numerous products that aid such function.

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