The influence of oak on wine, whether from a barrel or an oak alternative, can be tremendously complex. While achieving the desired flavor is usually possible, it can be a puzzle of blends and trials that greatly benefits from the insight and guidance of a specialist.
Galina Seabrook is an oak expert, a micro-celebrity in the field, and the Oak Business Development Manager at G3 Enterprises. What excites her is the opportunity to work as a team with many different winemakers and help them achieve their goals on a broad variety of wines.
Winemakers are usually very busy, and often don’t have much time to experiment with sample kits, so Seabrook usually offers to take a sample of their wine with the description of what they want in the final product. She then uses her expertise in oak alternatives to create wine samples with combinations of the different oak toast levels that she thinks could work. Four weeks later she meets with the winemaker to taste the samples. “Obviously, I don’t have the picture of the desired wine that they have in their heads, but just by discussing, blending, and giving them the ability to adjust, we can pretty much achieve any goal.”
“I’ve been a winemaker since graduating from college,” says Seabrook. “I understand winemakers, being one of them. Selling them something isn’t the primary and only goal. It’s always much more interesting and beneficial for the winemakers to give them wines to taste and let them make their own conclusions which oak flavor profiles to use successfully.”
Creating an Oak Alternative Tailored to American Wines
G3 Enterprises offers the renowned global brand Boisé’s comprehensive line of oak chips and Inspiration staves as well as a special, unique line of Phenesse oak alternatives tailored to the needs of U.S. winemakers.
“The goal was to produce a profile suited for American wine styles with the fruit that we have here; riper, richer, more jammy and generous,” explains Seabrook. The Phenesse oak alternatives consist of two types of chips and two types of staves and are made for G3 Enterprises by a prominent cooper. The recipes for the oak profiles were developed specifically based on tasting panels of U.S. winemakers and through lots of experiments to find the most preferred styles that best suit this market.
It was an incredibly complex process involving thousands of different possible combinations of toasting methods, origin of the wood, and seasoning that all impact the ratio of compounds that you get in the final oak product. “There are so many ways to toast the oak,” says Seabrook. “You can raise the temperature really quickly and keep it for a short period of time or longer at that level, or you can raise the temperature very slowly for a prolonged toasting. In each different case, the oak profiles would be different.”
Seabrook has created a tasting trial of the four Phenesse products to illustrate how the flavor profile shifts compared to the control, a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
Phenesse Medium Long – French Oak Stave, 11mm
“You get that sour cherry fruit and very jammy notes.” Seabrook smells the wine. “Even on the nose, compared with the control, the profile of the fruit shifts quite a bit.” The oak adds volume, creamy sensations, and a sweet balanced elegance to the profile.
Phenesse Supreme – French Oak Stave, 11mm
“Supreme is toastier and adds fullness,” says Seabrook, “it increases the length and rounds the finish.”
Phenesse Lush Blend – A blend of French and American Oak Chips
Lush is a nuanced blend of French and American oak with balanced tannins that adds a powerful expression of sweet and fruity notes with round mouthfeel. “With the American oak blended in, sweetness, vanilla and lactones shift the fruit over to a sweeter, riper fruit profile,” says Seabrook.
Phenesse Tradition – French Oak Chips
Tradition is a very quintessential French style oak chip; it adds volume, structure, and length. “Tradition is more toasty,” says Seabrook, “it has darker characteristics; chocolate, coffee, mocha, and spice at the same time.”
Barrels vs. Oak Alternatives & a Common Mistake
Chips and staves are called alternatives to barrels, but in some cases they are used more like supplements.
“A common mistake I’ve seen through the years is when the winemakers just select one toast level of chips, let’s say ’French medium toast‘ and put them in the wine,” says Seabrook. “Then in three or six months they say, ‘oh this wine really tastes like chips; it is one dimensional; you can immediately see there were chips in there.’ And that’s because one toast of chips is narrowly defined compared with the complexity of a barrel and it brings a limited range of ingredients.”
Seabrook compares to how a barrel is toasted which offers a whole range of compounds extracted at different times. “The barrel stave on the inside surface where the wine starts extracting oak components first may be medium plus or heavy toast. While penetrating through the depth of the barrel stave, within a couple millimeters it extracts medium toast level components, and then with further penetrating it will get some light toasted compounds. That’s how barrel complexity is built. So if you just put French medium chips in a wine, you can never ever do anything close to a barrel profile.”
The solution is to think about oak alternatives in the same way and add a spectrum of toasting profiles into the wine. Seabrook advises winemakers in order to achieve complex, barrel like oak impact, to use more than one or two different toast levels barrel alternatives and two or three different suppliers, because different suppliers also have different cooper signatures and can be complementary used together.
While you automatically get complexity from a barrel, Seabrook cautions that barrels have some drawbacks as well. They are very expensive, require intensive labor to maintain and it takes much longer time for extraction.
Oak alternatives have consistent, reproducible profiles, barrels have an unpredictable variability. “You can get a hundred barrels from the same barrel cooper year after year, and maybe twenty of those barrels will have some variation that you may not desire. And in the end you wait a year or eighteen months to get the profile from the barrels, and you may be surprised that it’s not exactly what was expected,” says Seabrook.
Because of the barrel drawbacks and increased quality and awareness of oak alternatives in recent years, Seabrook says that ’dress ups‘ of blends of barrel aged wines have become a very popular approach to quickly adjust and put the finishing touches on wines prior to bottling. “When the winemakers make a blend after barrel aging and it’s not exactly the profile that they are looking for, that’s where chips are a great tool to adjust some specific desired compounds or to increase the overall oak intensity. At this final point in the wine production only oak alternatives can deliver satisfactory results because the process is quick and gives the winemaker full control to correct just what the wine is missing – if it’s vanilla, add chips that are more vanilla oriented and so on.”
The Art of Integration
In addition to the four Phenesse products, G3 Enterprises’ portfolio includes the full range of Boisé chips and staves making for a plethora of possible combinations to make blends of different toast levels of chips in different ratios or staves in different ratios. Some of the profiles have just a structuring effect and some are an aromatic contribution focused on different aromatics like coffee or caramel or vanilla or spice, but Seabrook is clear on her guiding principles on how to select the right oak product.
“The most important thing is to adjust the oak appropriately for the wine and the style the winemaker wants. It doesn’t matter if it is Phenesse or if it is Boisé as long as it matches the goal. I believe that the right approach is to find the right oak for the particular wine. It really depends on what the winemaker wants it to taste like.”