Can anybody tell the difference between a wine aged with oak chips and one aged in oak barrels?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can anybody tell the difference between a wine aged with oak chips and one aged in oak barrels?

—Gilberto G., Calif.

Dear Gilberto,

I’ve participated in tastings between wines made in barrels and others using barrel alternatives, and I have been able to tell a difference. But let me back up first and explain what we’re talking about for those not familiar. Because a good wine barrel can cost up to $1,000 a pop, some wine producers use other forms of oak. I’ve seen everything from large staves that are placed in stainless steel tanks, to “tea bags” of oak chips and even something that more resembled oak sawdust.

In my experience—and this is hardly scientific—oak alternatives definitely add oak notes, but the oak flavor can come across as a little heavy-handed and sometimes astringent. I find barrels more subtle and complex in what they impart to a wine in these side-by-side tastings.

That doesn’t mean I’m against barrel alternatives. I think in the right hands they can result in better, more affordable wines out there, and I’m all for that. That said, I’ve never heard a winemaker say they’d prefer working with barrel alternatives if money were not an issue.

—Dr. Vinny

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