What's the evidence that oak barrels are any better than oak chips?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have read that using oak chips in a steel tank will have the same effect on aging wine as the more expensive oak barrels. All the winemakers I have asked say there is a major difference in the wine produced by oak chips and an oak barrel. The oak barrels produce a much better product. Is this emotional or scientific?

—Guerry H., Elmira, N.Y.

Dear Guerry,

I think that barrels have good enough results that they will never become obsolete. But you're correct that there is a strong emotional attachment to them, and they are very expensive—the finest barrels can cost $900 a pop. In order to remain competitive, some wine producers use barrel alternatives—anything from oak sawdust to teabags of oak chips and even larger staves (and combinations thereof) to impart oak flavors like toast, smoke, caramel and vanilla.

Winemakers don't just use barrels so they can squeeze every last drop of oak flavoring into wine. Barrels have other qualities, including a good amount of surface area and known results of oxidation (picture a wine "breathing" through the barrel). Winemakers can now mimic this effect with a process called micro-oxygenation, in which precise, measured amounts of oxygen are added to the wine over a period of time. So the gap between barrels and chips is narrowing.

I have read some sensory studies about how wine tastes from barrels vs. oak chips, and I've done some tastings of wine made with barrels vs. chips myself. Sensory results are hardly scientific, but across the board, there does seem to be a sense that barrels offer more complex flavors, while oak chips—which can successfully add oak notes—create more monolithic flavors and can result in higher degrees of astringency.

I'm not against barrel alternatives. In fact, I like the ingenuity—especially when it transfers to better, more affordable wines in the market. And the environmental impact makes me hug a tree (you can get more barrel alternatives than barrels out of a single tree). Still, I have yet to hear a winemaker say that if they had a limitless budget that they'd decide to work with barrel alternatives instead of barrels.

—Dr. Vinny

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