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Oak Barrels or Wood Chips?
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Oak Barrels or Wood Chips?Oak Barrels or Wood Chips?
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Dr. Dieter Simon
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Oberkircher WG

Vanilla, coffee, caramel aromas wafting up gently from the glass. The nose knows! This wine has been made in classic French oak barrels, often referred to as barrique. Or is the nose mistaken?

Red wines with a touch of oak are very popular. This oaky nuance can come from a real barrel or from the more avant-garde practice of submerging oak wood chips in a wine. Can the tongue sense the difference? And is wine matured in real oak barrels really better? The French word “barrique” means “little barrel” and describes a wooden barrel which can hold between 225 and 230 liters. Generally such a barrel is made of oak. The winemaker’s secret is that wood, which is slightly porous, allows a subtle exchange between wine and air, which in turn improves the wine’s maturation process. Not an oak chip in the world can do that. And the experienced palette can tell. Truly special wines are left to mature in small oak barrels for 24 months and more. The wine takes on the taste of the barrel; the newer the barrel, the more flavor is imparted. In general, such barriques are heated over an open fire to make the staves pliable for forming the barrel. This so-called “toast” of the barrel gives the wine stored in it extra flavors, which are reminiscent of toasted bread or coffee. However, these oak barrels can only be used three or four times before the toasted flavors are used up. New barrels must be bought, and barriques barrels are quite expensive, each one costing between 700 and 800 Euro. There are over 400 different types of oak trees, yet only 20 can be used for making barrique barrels. On the other hand, oak wood chips cost only 7 to 20 Euro per kilo. These chips, which range in size from a 10 cent coin to sawdust, can be added to the tank in differing amounts, depending on the desired flavor effect. So wines of lesser quality can still affordably attain a toasted barrique flavor. And it’s legal! “The use of oak wood chips has been uniformly regulated in the EU since 2006,” reports Jürgen Sigler from the State Institute for Viticulture in Freiburg. Yet the mellow flavors that a high-quality wines gain from maturing in an oak barrel can never be imparted by wood chips, not even if the quality of the wine treated with wood chips was quite good. In any case, if “barrique” or “oak-aged” is written on the label, contact with wood chips is not allowed.

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