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Australian winemakers’ views towards oak barrel alternatives matures

Australian winemakers’ views towards oak barrel alternatives matures

Author: Mark O'Callaghan, Wine Network Consulting

It is probably fair to suggest that for most of us in the world of winemaking, the use of oak barrel alternatives is not one of the more energising or romantic aspects of our days' work. Nor are they what seduced us all away from more lucrative careers elsewhere. Also, one suspects that a beautifully lit barrel hall is a better image for brand building than a store room with bags of chips and planks on the shelves. The reality, however, is that most of the wine sold and enjoyed at the dinner table, at least here in Australia, has been made using oak barrel alternatives. This article takes a look at why, where and how wineries are using them and how this has evolved by drawing on the views and experience of wine reviewers, suppliers and winemakers.

COST CONSTRAINTS AND QUALITY - ARE THEY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?
It came as no surprise that when asked why they used alternatives, all the winemakers interviewed for this article mentioned cost constraints. As always with the good houses, however, the thinking goes deeper than that. To remind ourselves of the economics of production, Figure 1, while limited to Nielsen scan data, sheds some light on still table wine sales in the Australian off-trade.

Approximately 94% of bottled still table wine [in Australia] is sold for $20 or less. When discussing the sensitive matter of price with winemakers and suppliers, it was the $20-25 (RRP) range that was consistently the tipping point, i.e., barrels are usually unviable below this point in Australia. The suppliers contacted for this piece all knew of (anonymous) examples of $40-50 red wines made without barrels, including one from a house at which '…they haven't had a barrel in the place for 10 years!'

This brings us to the question of quality - how have the wines in what we might call the 'alternative range' evolved over the last 10 years?

Wine writer and judge Tyson Stelzer is overwhelmingly positive about this group. 'To my taste, the improvement in the last 10 years has been extraordinary. There was a time when these wines (made with alternatives) really stood out. Now, if it's done well, when comparing a good adjunct solution to a mid-range barrel, who would know the difference?

'I've got single vineyard red wines in my cellar that I bought for $10. I have since found out that some of them were made using adjuncts but they are ageing beautifully. There is still a role for older barrels in cheaper wines and the truth is you are never going to use a cheap alternative to replace the texture of a great barrel. However, I'm finding some fabulous wines in that range. In fact, I'm often giving higher scores to some houses' cheaper wines because they are not over-oaked or overripe. I'm much more critical of too much oak than too little.'

Widely known in the wine world as a great communicator, wine judge and director of Bottle Shop Concepts Dan Sims has noticed the same trend. 'Yes, I do think things have improved with the use of oak. I think the wine show system is seeing this as well. No more massively oaken, overripe wines. They're more about integration and quality of fruit. I buy wine when I buy a bottle, not a lump of wood. If I wanted that, I'd go lick a tree - it's cheaper!'

The improvement in the balance of these wines, from an oak perspective at least, seems to be driven by thoughtful and sensitive use, together with improved quality of the alternatives. Tom Newton, senior winemaker at Accolade, said he'd noticed that the material available was 'much better than it was 10 years ago. Back then, they were more sappy, with timbery, rustic flavours. Now they are much sweeter…quite a lot of refined material out there.'

I spoke to another well-known winemaker on the subject of oak barrel alternatives who requested he remain anonymous, so from here on shall be referred to as Max Power. Power's request for anonymity is no doubt indicative of the stigma that still surrounds the use of alternatives in the industry. 'The brand managers worry a little about techniques like this being misinterpreted or misunderstood. You know, like some kind of 'Frankenwien', rather than the conventional winemaker image. At the risk of sounding a bit patronising, I just don't think the public, or even some trade, are ready for that yet. A few years ago, a guy I know admitted to using chips in a $25 wine at a trade event - you could've heard a pin drop and he was almost lynched!' However, Power agrees that the quality of alternatives and the wines made using them has improved. 'I reckon when we first started, the flavour was very different. Now they actually taste and feel like they have been in barrel - much more genuine.'

In terms of the production of alternatives, this has undergone a complete overhaul and Hamish Black from Classic Oak is adamant: 'Certainly over the last five years we have seen much more competition. It's ferocious, but it has been a great positive for quality. Wood selection is certainly one of the things that has changed. To a certain extent, they are still made using offcuts but the big difference is that they are properly seasoned, these days a minimum of 24 months'. Black added, 'the good producers now have sites that are purpose-built for alternatives, so you see features like a range of toasting, from fire, to convection, to infra-red'. Nick Wickham, general manager of Diverse Barrel Solutions, agrees and adds that even for the best grade oak powder, 'it's heat-treated but not toasted and made using the same wood as the barrels - from offcuts, to sanding and cutting the croze; the base material is the best'.

APPLICATION - HOW ARE THEY USED?
To build on the improvements in quality of alternatives, the way in which they are used today is much more considered, balanced and sympathetic to the fruit and house style.
Max Power is adamant that the use of alternatives is not entirely about affordability. 'Just like an addition, we have used untoasted bags of cubes to improve mouthfeel without oak flavour and that is fabulous. Apparently, they can do something for colour but really - who knows? Or cares? That's not why we use them.'
In terms of length of maturation, Power does not exceed a total of nine months. After that, they go to the pizza oven, and this was similar to the feedback from the other winemakers interviewed. Tom Newton likes the results from longer maturation at lower rates of tank staves but that is not always possible. The other consistent feedback from winemakers is that, all things being equal, earlier integration is better. From oak powders added at crushing, to finishing red ferments on light rates of staves, to finishing malolactic (or MLF) 'on' oak - the integration is generally better when added earlier.

Interestingly, one aspect of managing barrel alternatives that varied widely amongst interviewees was micro-oxygenation (MOX). Nick Wickham said his observations around many wineries suggested the use of MOX may be dropping. 'I see a lot of MOX units covered in cobwebs. What I'm noticing is more people just using oxidative handling, say, when racking reds'. Tom Newton says Accolade has cut back a little compared with a few years ago but it is still important, while Max Power, whose portfolio includes a fantastic affordable range that uses alternatives, is still a fan. 'With reds before malo we will use 10-20ml/L/month [of oxygen], then turn it off once malo starts, going back to 2-5ml/L/month after that. The aim is to replicate a barrel and stop it going 'tanky'.'

A simple summary of the options available for using alternatives underscores how many different combinations of features are available to winemakers today:

• supplier/brand
• type - stave, block/domino, chip, powder
• timing - crusher, end of primary ferment, pre-malo, post-malo, pre-bottling
• MOX - yes/no
• toast level.

Even from this rudimentary list, if one assumed only three toasting levels and six different suppliers, there could be at least 700 permutations even before considering the rate of use.
One consideration that is rarely discussed but could use a little more thought is the role of microbiology and oak. An observation from Max Power may be useful to wineries that are still battling Brettanomyces in their cellars: 'It's funny, isn't it? Our more expensive wines are matured in barrel, so even with no 4EP, they will sometimes test positive for Brett on the micro-test, so we sterile filter them. In contrast, our reds that use the alternatives at. They never test positive, so we can always bottle unfiltered - safely!'

UNITS OF MEASURE
Another interesting aspect that relates to balance and how much oak is used is the unit of measure, i.e., how does one compare or benchmark between alternatives and the effect of barrels? The most common methods include grams per litre, percentage of barrique surface area, square metres per kilolitre (KL) and staves per kL. It can be a little frustrating to try to compare apples with oranges, but many of the suppliers provide calculators to convert to an approximation of a barrique effect. On the topic from one winemaker: 'We usually go with the manufacturers' guides and that varies, but mostly it's percentage surface area. We take their guides and then trim them by 50%. So, if we want the equivalent of 25% 'new oak', we use the manufacturers' recommendations for 12.5%.' All of this simply means that there is certainly no magic formula and refining the management of alternatives is an ongoing, complex aspect of balance and house style.

AND FINALLY…
Here is some salient feedback from a premium oak supplier which reminds us all of the enduring truism that you still only get what you pay for. Certainly, competition has pushed the rising tide that has lifted all ships in terms of quality but it still varies from supplier to supplier. Noted the supplier from its negotiations with a major commercial winery: 'The bean counters came in and told them to cut the COGS by a certain dollar figure. They went for cheaper oak adjuncts and overnight, their scores fell, reviews dropped off and sales slumped. Once that happens business recovery is almost impossible, at least in the short term.'

By Mark O'Callaghan, Senior Consultant & Director, Wine Network Consulting, Healesville, Victoria 3777
Email: mocallaghan@winenet.com.au
Mark O'Callaghan, former senior winemaker and winery manager for the Accolade-owned Yarra Burn in Victoria's Yarra Valley and now consultant and director with Wine Network Consulting, spoke to wine producers, oak product suppliers and wine reviewers to provide an overview of the Australian wine industry's use of oak barrel alternatives.

Disclosure
Diverse Barrel Solutions is a client of Wine Network Consulting.

This story appears in the July/Aug 2014 issue of Wine & Viticulture Journal magazine.
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