Devil's Advocate: What's Happening to Oak? Have we Passed Peak Barrique?

Robert Joseph takes an offbeat look at the changing way that oak is viewed by the wine industry.

Reading time: 4m

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

“So, just smell and taste these and tell me what you think.”  Ivo Hasler, consultant for Vivelys, a French company dedicated to ‘supporting wine producers at every stage of the winemaking process’, had just taken four little brown bottles from a small cardboard carton and added a single drop of each to a partly-filled glass of water.

The first sample had a faint oak character, that was almost too subtle to detect. Numbers two and four, by contrast, although different, were both textbook examples of oaky flavour. My favourite, by far was the third glass, to which the product labelled as #8 ‘Spice and Toast Notes’ had been added. Here, the vanilla aroma and flavour were far less obvious, but the defining character was an enhanced mouthfeel and length.

Sampling these Vivelys Boisé Absolu ‘natural aqueous oak products’ with water is, of course, hardly representative of how they would behave with any particular wine, but the demonstration was pretty convincing. Unless the goal is to produce an aromatised wine, however, the use of this kind of flavouring by a winemaker is not generally well regarded.

Oakiness still has its fans

The wine industry’s attitude to oak today is far from clear. Listening to critics, there appears to be a consensus that the days of obvious, toastily oaked wines are over. Tasting wines that are often well-received in the market suggests otherwise. On almost consecutive days recently I sampled award-winning German Pinots and a reserve Rossese from a respected Ligurian winery that all seemed to have more to do with wood than fruit. The ‘use less oak’ message is clearly failing to get through to everyone.

Wines dismissed by European experts as ridiculously over-oaked may delight huge numbers of happy consumers in the US. Bordeaux ‘garagiste’ chateaux may have long given up their brief 1990s flirtation with ‘200% new oak-fermented’ reds which did their malolactic in virgin casks – but there is at least one California winery that is still proudly using this recipe.

The amount of oak flavour deemed desirable or acceptable will always depend on the style of the wine and the personal taste of the person drinking it, but only the most hardcore naturalistas would insist on a concrete-only regime in Bordeaux or Burgundy.

To be blunt, oak is an ingredient, like sugar and salt in cooking, that simply works, both in itself and in its effect on other flavours and textures. Oak is still almost the only legally-permitted flavour additive, and the others are all associated with it.


Yeast can help give wines flavours such as vanilla and raspberry, but more complex flavours are still trickier, and making Trebbiano taste like Sauvignon Blanc is still some way off, as Erika Szymanski of Colorado State University explains.

Reading time: 5m 15s

Oak plus whiskey

Even more contentiously for the purists, some American drinkers and a growing number of their British counterparts have acquired the taste for wine aged in second-hand bourbon barrels that deliver a hefty dose of woody vanilla combined with sweet whiskey. Global sales today of these are estimated at between 20-30m bottles per year. How does bourbon — or rum, or any other sprit aged in casks — get to be the ‘other’ legal flavour additive? Presumably because nobody with the authority to ban it ever imagined it would be used.

But barrels, whether new, newish or bourbon-primed, are only one set of options among many. Some winemakers favour chips, of which Vivelys offers no fewer than six options, while others routinely ‘improve’ their wine with powdered tannins.

Between respected barrels on the one hand and derided chips and tannins on the other, there are staves, and this is where things are getting interesting. While almost nobody would seriously claim that adding these bits of timber to a vat is appropriate to super-premium wine, it is widely accepted that, used judiciously, they can do wonders for a wide range of delicious mid-range wines. Few would say the same for chips.

Vivelys, again, is unsurprisingly well represented here, with 11 different stave options in its catalogue, and a choice of 7mm, or 20mm thickness. There are also environmental credentials: they are all toasted using solar energy and certified for use in organic wine.


Buttery and Bourbon-flavoured wines may not be the favourite styles of many critics, but for brands like Mondavi, they are proving popular and successful

Staves in barrels

These staves are destined for insertion into stainless steel or concrete tanks, but it is another stave-related innovation that has now caught my eye. Kirk Bauer, a fellow member of the MundusVini competition board also runs a business selling barrels, staves, and chips. Alongside his €1,000 premium barriques, he is now offering alternatives made out of stainless steel by a US company called Modern Cooperage, and equipped with a cooling or heating sleeve and an optional membrane to allow as much oxygen ingress as one would have from a classic cask. Most strikingly though, are the paddles inside the cask to which staves can be attached and used for battonage.

These new-style barrels contain 31% more wine than wooden ones taking up the same space in the same rack, require much less water, labour and SO2, are less subject to brettanomyces, come with a 30-year guarantee, and can be switched from red wine to white use at will.

Considering this list of advantages, a price tag of just twice the cost of a new barrique makes the stainless steel cask look like a bargain, even once one has factored in the relatively modest annual expenditure on proprietary staves to put in it. 

For Bauer, these hybrid barrels are totally in line with the direction in which his business is heading. “We are selling more oak, but many fewer barriques. Customers either want bigger formats — hogsheads or foudres — or oak adjuncts: chips and staves.”

Further evidence for this trend comes from the market for second-hand casks. Bauer says that these are increasingly hard to obtain these days. “If people are buying fewer new barrels, obviously there aren’t going to be as many second- or third-fill casks.”

I’m not suggesting that those iconic images of Bordeaux chais full of Instagram-friendly barrels are going to become outdated any time soon, but my guess is that we have passed peak barrique. Whether we’re moving into the era of stave-stirring stainless-steel ‘barrels’ or adding oak flavour with a pipette remains to be seen.

Robert Joseph argues against the belief that the answer to wine's woes lies in spreading more knowledge and expertise among those who drink it



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