To Oak or Not to Oak - That is the Question
First off, the always-asked question: Should I oak my wine? In almost all cases, the answer is a resounding YES.
Oak adds a subtle, (or not-so subtle!) underlying dimension to many wines. Not only is it an expected flavor in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and many other dry white and red wines, it also has an added benefit. Oak tends to "soften up" a wine, making it smoother, less harsh and more quickly drinkable. Oak can turn an ordinary wine exceptional, and can make a below-average wine taste much better. I have personally seen great transformations when oak is properly added.
But, first the basics. When, how and to what is oak added. The only wines that I think do NOT benefit from the flavor and effects of oak are sweet wines. This can include Gerwurtzraminer, Reisling, sweet fruit wines and sweet Concord and Niagra wines. As a general rule, sweet wines are not oaked.
But everything else can (and often should) be oaked. Not only can oak be very successfully added to dry white wine and dry (and tannic) red wines, but I have seen wonderful effects by the addition of oak to apple (and pear) ciders and dry honey meads.
We carry oak chips at the store. Some people inquire about barrel aging. Barrels are great, however they have inherent drawbacks. First is price: 10 gallon barrels can run from $200 to $400 dollars (or more), depending on country of origin, the cooperage, etc., etc. The second is maintenance. If you are lax on your maintenance, and do not spend a constant vigilance making sure your barrel stays wet and sulphited and clean, you will ruin it and it will become a very expensive planter for your porch. The final drawback is that until you get over about 20 to 30 gallon barrel sizes, the ratio of internal surface area to volume of wine is skewed against you, and the wine will become incredibly oaked in a very short period of time. This means that you must rack your wine into a five gallon barrel, leave it for one to two weeks and rack off before it becomes "liquid oak." Then you have 50 weeks of maintenance before next year's crop is ready. But, after all that, if you are making large volumes of wine, can afford the large barrels and are prepared for the effort, you can use barrels to make incredible wines...
The oak we carry comes in two main forms: toasted and non-toasted. Toasted oak adds a smoky, complex, charred, toasty flavor into the taste of the wine and is used VERY often on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Non-toasted oak adds a dry, classic "woody/oaky" flavor into wine and is used on many big red wines, such as Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah, as well as in ciders. Personal preference will dictate which you prefer more, but either variety can be added into any wine: there are no hard and fast rules. (Main Street carries American oak in both the toasted and non-toasted forms, and French oak in the toasted only. French oak is known to have more of the "vanilla" flavor that can come from the wood.)
Once you decide which oak you think would be more to your liking, now comes the time to add the oak into the fermenter. The best time to add the oak is while it is during the long aging over winter. This usually means the third fermenter, (which should be the second carboy). The oak is added into the carboy before racking and then the ine is racked over the top of it. Place an airlock on the carboy and let the wood sit in there for three or four months.
By the end of that time, the wood will have become "wine-logged" and will have sunk to the bottom of the fermenter. The wine will have leached out as much flavor as possible from the oak chips. Rack the wine into a clean glass fermenter, and taste for oakiness. You want a strong oak presence at that point, because the flavor will fade away over months or years, but don't go crazy. If you are sure you want to add another dose of oak, you still have three months more of aging in that next fermenter: add more oak right then, and lock it away.
WARNING: Do not over-oak!! Many wines, even commercially, have way more oak than they need. In my opinion, it is a bad trend with American wines these days, particularly California vintages, especially Chardonnay. The newest trend in winemaking these days is to emphasize flavor of the grape, not oak.
If you have any questions, we are here to help. Come on in anytime and ask questions...