Oak Barrels vs. Oak Chips: The Showdown

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One major cost associated with producing wine is the cost of the barrel in which it is fermented and/or aged.  A brand new American oak barrel in 2011 costs roughly $400, while a brand new French oak barrel in 2011 costs roughly $900 (though some can be more expensive, depending upon toasting and other customized options).  One way wineries are cutting costs when it comes to barrel choice, is using toasted oak chips in wine that is fermenting/aging in stainless steel tanks, which costs hundreds less than the oak barrel option. 

It is said that this combination of steel tanks and oak chips produces the same result at the end of the winemaking process.  What you basically get is a wine that consumers will believe has been fermenting and aging in oak barrels.  If the goal is produce a lower price point wine that still retains quality oak barrel fermented characteristics, then the use of oak chips in a stainless steel tank may be very intriguing.

Oak Chips:  En Vogue? Or Taboo?

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Up until 1993, in the United States, the use of oak chips in wine was illegal (even though some winemakers were still using them).  The use of oak chips is also not highly advertised by winemakers or wineries, because they carry with it the stigma that the wine is of poorer quality.  What consumers feel about the use of oak chips in wine is relatively unknown.  It is known that customers generally appreciate their wines aged in oak barrels.  It is also known that consumers generally choose their wines based on the type of wine, price point, the quality certification, the grape variety, and the brand.  In order to stay in the game, in these times of seemingly low attention spans, wineries are always trying to “go with the flow” by introducing new products, in order to retain the attention of current customers and/or to gain new customers.

Fermenting and aging a wine in oak barrels gives certain sensory characteristics that are pleasing to many consumers.  Basically, during the aging process in an oak barrel, many compounds are extracted from the wood that adds overall complexity to the wine.  Small amounts of oxygen are also entering the wine through the pores in the wood, which react with the phenolic components of the wine to increase stability and also aroma and mouthfeel complexity.  This process is often slow, thus delaying the release of the wine to the customers.  If a winery is interested in producing wines with complex oak character but would like a faster way to get it out to the public, then an alternative such as adding wood chips in a stainless steel tank may be the solution.

The use of oak chips first started in the production of spirits when they would use wood fragments instead of barrels for aging.  Once the wood chips are added to the spirits or wine, the oak-phenols and other volatile compounds that give “oaky” complexity to the wine is absorbed in the same manner it was when in the oak barrel.  The only difference, however, is that no oxygen enters the wine in the same way it did when in oak barrels.  In the early 1990s, the solution to this problem was solved with the development of the micro-oxygenation technique, which allows minute quantities of oxygen to enter the wine in the stainless steel tanks, so as to mimic the same process that occurs in the traditional oak barrels.  When it’s all said and done, this entire process costs much less and goes to completion much faster than the traditional oak barrel aging technique.

As of 2005, the use of oak chips in wine was approved in the European Union.  Surprising, since the traditional methods of winemaking are very strictly regulated, however, the use of the oak chips were approved provided that the production method be clearly labeled on the bottle of wine so that the consumer knows exactly how that wine was made and can thereby make an informed decision on whether or not to purchase.  Studies have shown that label information on a bottle of wine is very influential on the potential customer, but little is known about consumer preferences when it comes to oak barrel versus oak chip wine.

Purpose of the study reviewed today

So far, many studies have looked at chemical differences between wines aged in oak barrels versus wines fermented and aged using oak chips.  However, no studies have looked at consumer preferences based on taste tests of the two wine types, even though in theory, that is the ultimate goal.  In order to determine whether or not the use of oak chips is financially beneficial for a winery, be it in reduced costs and/or increased or decreased sales, consumer preferences must be determined. 

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The main goal of today’s study was to determine consumers’ opinions of the use of oak chips in red wine, their acceptance of them, and their intentions of purchasing them.

Methods

First, a questionnaire was giving to all participants (150 individuals from the Castilla y León Autonomous Community in northern Spain) in order to determine their wine type preference and their wine consumption habits.  Other questions were asked to determine the importance of factors during the purchasing process, and sensory attributes when consuming wine.  Questions were also asked to determine what the importance of back label information on the wine bottle was for consumers, whether or not they accepted the use of oak chips in wine, and whether or not they intend to buy wines that had been made using oak chips.

Wine Samples

The wine variety used for this study was Tinta del País, which is one of the most commonly consumed reds in the region, and thus the study participants would be very familiar with it.  For the traditional oak barrel samples, the wine was split up into three American and three French oak barrels after malolactic fermentation.  Wines were barrel aged for 6 months, then bottled and left for one month before the study began.  The rest of the wine was stored in stainless steel tanks at 15oC for 5 months, in order to minimize the difference in bottling time, due to the aging process in the traditional barrels.  After 5 months, the wine was split up into four steel tanks, and two different types of oak chips (American and French) were added to two barrel each.  All barrels and oak chips were a medium-plus toast.  Maceration (contact of wine with oak chips) and micro-oxygenation was performed for one month.  After completion, the oak chips were removed and the wine bottled and stored for one month before the study began.

Sensory Analysis

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For the sensory (or taste) analysis, 65 frequent red wine drinkers were chosen for the study.  All of the participants consumed red wine at least 2-3 times per week.  All wines (barrel aged and oak chip) were presented to each participant blindly and in random order.  Participants ranked each wine in order of their personal preference, without knowing exactly which wine was in which glass.

Results of the Questionnaire

  •       The participants in the study were 55% male and 45% female, between the ages of 20 and 65.
  •       The total participant pool preferred red wine (76.7%), especially red wine aged in oak barrels (88.0%).
  •       88% of participants would not pay more the 20Euros (~$29) for “crianza” wine (aged for 2 years in a barrel).
  •       66% of participants claimed to consume 1-2 glasses when they drink wine.
  •       There were no differences between men and women in regards to wine preferences and wine consumption habits.
  •       Older participants preferred red wine and wines in oak barrels significantly more than younger participants.
  •       Older participants preferred wines aged longer in barrels significantly more than younger participants, who preferred younger wines not aged as long.
  •        There were no significant differences between the two age groups in regards to how much they were willing to pay for wines (so economics is not a factor for younger consumers).
  •       Younger participants preferred wine as a pre-meal drink, whereas older participants preferred the wine to go with lunch or dinner.
  •       Younger participants preferred to drink only on weekends or occasionally, while older participants were more consistent consuming wine throughout the week.
  •       The least important factors when considering purchasing a wine for any age group is grape variety, back label information, and brand.  The more important factors were:  recommendation of a wine, price point, type of wine, and quality certification.
  •       The most important qualities either age group looks for when tasting the wine are: balance and roundness in the mouthfeel, and woody and fruity aromas.
  •        87.3% of the participants read the back label information on wine, and 93.3% of them said it was important (since usually this is where taste/smell characteristics are indicated).

So…get to the oak chips, already….

  •        64% of the participants said knowledge of the winemaking process may change their mind about buying a particular wine. (Significantly more older participants than younger).
  •        55% of participants said they would NOT buy wines that said they were made with oak chips.

o   They would only consider purchasing the oak chip wines if they had a chance to taste it and discovered it was still a pleasant wine.

  •       Significantly more younger participants would be willing to purchase a wine made with oak chips than older participants (indicating more traditionalist views and unwillingness to change in the older age group).

Results of the Sensory Analysis

·         Based on the sensory analysis described above, there were NO significant differences in taste preferences of any of the four wines tested (American and French oak barrels, or American and French oak chips).  The American oak barrel wine scored the lowest, however, this difference was not statistically significant (see Figure 1, extracted from the study we are reviewing today).


Figure 1. Global scores (sum of rankings) of each wine sample given by

65 frequent consumers: Am-Barrel and Fr-Barrel, wines aged in American

and French medium-plus toasted new barrels respectively; Am-Chips and

Fr-Chips, wines treated with American and French medium-plus toasted

degree chips respectively.

What does this all mean?

Based on the results of the sensory analysis, it is clear that there are no differences in taste preference between wines barrel aged and wines that were made using oak chips.  This does not take into account any potential chemical differences between the two, but that should not matter, considering the ultimate goal of the study was to determine, flat out, whether or not people rejected wines that were made using oak chips instead of the more traditional oak barrels.

There also didn’t appear to be any differences in preference between American and French oak barrels, which is to be expected, since what one person loves another person may hate, thereby negating any potential differences between the two.

Results of the questionnaire indicated that consumers may be more hesitant about choosing wines made with oak chips, and is likely a result of hesitance to change or dedication to a more traditional approach to winemaking.  The results of the sensory analysis indicate that consumers do not overwhelmingly reject wines made with oak chips, and that they did not prefer oak barrels over oak chips based on pure taste alone.

These results indicate to me that producing wine using oak chips is a legitimate way for wineries to cut costs, while still producing quality wines for their customers.  Since there could potentially be decreased sales due to what we learned in the questionnaire given in this study, and consumers hesitation about purchasing wine made with oak chips, tastings should be offered to customers to show that the quality has not been altered.

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For me, I had the same hesitation in the beginning regarding wine made with oak chips, but after seeing the results of the study, I am less inclined to flat out reject a wine that has been made in this “modern” approach.  For my everyday table wine, I’m happy to purchase a wine made with oak chips, but for more special occasions, I may (or may not!) be inclined to purchase a more traditional bottle of wine.  Perhaps I need to taste one for myself to see!

What do you all think about this topic?  I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to comment below!

Full citation of the study discussed today:

Pérez-Magariño, S., Ortega-Heras, M., and González-Sanjosé, M.L. 2011. Wine consumption habits and consumer preferences between wines aged in barrels or with chips. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91: 943-949.

I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!

8 comments for “Oak Barrels vs. Oak Chips: The Showdown

  1. Lance, Michigan
    April 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you for this post. I am currently aging a cabernet and was pondering on weather or not to add some oak chips or beans. Since i make wine in glass jugs and carboys. Hope all goes well and turns out well. I found this study very interesting.

  2. April 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for commenting! Best of luck with your cabernet, and I hope everything works out for you! Feel free to update us when it's finished!

  3. Kevin Hulburt
    August 20, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you for posting this. It is so difficult to separate out perception bias and actual difference in taste. As a home winemaker, I'm interested in creating quality flavor at low cost. This was useful information.

  4. August 21, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin!

    I agree, this type of research is very useful and important for those in the winemaking business, particularly those that do home winemaking that may not have the resources or space to use oak barrels. I hope you find success with whichever method you use!

  5. Tom
    January 11, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I to feel that it should be required to post on the label if the wine has used oak chips. That way an inform decision can be made as to the results compared to oak barrel aged wines.

  6. April 3, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    A great post, maybe, wines whitout soul?
    The rush is not good companion to make nice wines

  7. Alex JR C
    February 6, 2014 at 4:08 am

    I am actually on here with regards to fermenting my chilli sauce (fully realise the study is wine based but interesting none the less)

    • Becca
      February 6, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Alex! I’m glad you found it interesting even though it’s not what you originally came for :)

Comments are closed.