I have always looked at crafting wines like building a house. You start with a good solid foundation and sturdy framework (i.e grapes) and continually build upon that throughout the winemaking process. Unfortunately, I have yet to work at a winery that only harvests perfect grapes, therefore my foundation has always benefited from a little extra rebar. Oak chips can be a powerful tool in building up your wines, especially during fermentation and at the earliest stages of winemaking, before the use of barrels is oftentimes feasible.
Oak provides many benefits to wine and some of the benefits to using oak during fermentation include; reduction in green notes (pyrazines), contribution to color stability in red wines, lifting of fruit perception, reducing astringency, and providing more mid-palate weight, sweetness, and smoothness. Tannins from oak are also a great antioxidant which help protect your wines and prevent oxidation and browning in both reds and whites.
When thinking about color stability in reds, timing is key and providing tannins from oak to red ferments at the beginning of fermentation when most of the color from the skins is first extracted, promotes co-pigmentation and helps protect the color from browning out. Unless you are fermenting the next Cult Cabernet in barrel, this can only be done in tank with the addition of tannins like those provided by oak chips.
I have also found that wines made from grapes where the vineyard is farmed more for yield than for quality lack the concentration and weight of wines made from higher quality fruit. Many of my winemaker colleagues and I call these “Donut Wines” since where the mid palate should be there exists only a hole. Oak, particularly untoasted or lightly toasted can do wonders to help fill in that “donut hole” in both reds and whites and oftentimes have the effect of giving the perception of weight and sweetness on the mid-palate. Just like at Thanksgiving- who doesn’t like a little stuffing?
Even if you decide to age your wines in barrels, if you have incorporated oak chips to re-balance your wine, fill in the “donut hole”, and reinforce the foundation/framework prior to barreling, the quality of that wine will be much higher going into barrel and will less likely fall apart during aging. If you choose the “modern maturation” route with oak complements, then congratulations! We have lots to talk about in your bright future.
-Jason Dodge, Managing Director, Winemaking