Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
If a wine is made using oak chips, will it age as well as a wine aged in actual oak barrels?
—Joseph, Whitehouse Station, N.J.
Barrels are expensive, costing upwards of $1,000 each. So some winemakers have adopted oak alternatives, from large staves to "tea bags" of oak chips of various sizes which can be added to wine resting in tanks.
Oak chips can do a decent job of replicating some of the flavors of an oak barrel—spice, cedar, toast, vanilla and even smoke or campfire details. But that’s only part of a barrel’s influence. Barrels also allow for small amounts of oxygen to gradually enter the barrel through the pores in the wood, which can lead to a richer or creamier texture and softer tannins. Of course, there’s a way to mimic this effect with micro-oxygenation, sending precise, controlled amounts of oxygen into a tank of wine.
Speaking in broad generalizations, wines made with oak chips are more likely designed to be consumed in the near-term, as opposed to being laid down for aging. That’s not a knock against them: I’m glad that the oak alternatives mean that there are plenty more affordable wines out there with these oak-influenced flavors. But I find that oak chip flavors are less integrated—they can seem astringent and a touch candied. To make wines built for the cellar, if money were no object, most winemakers would choose real barrels over alternatives.