A shorter version of this article first appeared in Wine and Spirit magazine in 2006, since merged into Harpers Wine and Spirit. The costs cited here are those from 2006.
Using bits of wood other than barrels in winemaking is so common that they are almost officially called ‘barrel alternatives’. A vast range of products is available essentially falling into the ‘chips’ and ‘staves’ categories. Both categories of product vary in size, shape, seasoning (the amount of time before rough hewn oak planks are made into product), toast level (how much charring of wood during the making of product), oak origin (French, American, Russian, Slovenian), and of course, quality and price. Actually, barrels vary in size, shape, seasoning, toast and origin too. To kick off the cost comparison, a French oak barrique (225 litres) costs around £450.
Chips release higher levels of oak flavour
Chips, or shavings, are usually put into ‘tea bags’ (very large ones), otherwise they clog up pipes and pumps. Like tea bags, they are single use only, whereas staves and barrels can be used several times (with lessening impact of ‘active oak ingredients’). An important difference is they tend to have a lot of cut surfaces which release higher levels of oak flavour compounds. Ballpark costs are £7 per barrique equivalent. These are used to give a flavour of oak without the costs involved.
Staves, or planks, are essentially the bits of a barrel before the barrel is assembled. They come in varying lengths, widths and depths according to choice and ability to fit in the fermentation vats at the winery. Ballpark cost is £50 per barrique equivalent.
Because the staves (and chips) are in the wine, rather than the other way round, there is no oxygenation of wine, which is important for most reds and some styles of white, notably chardonnay. Some producers, therefore, use micro-oxygenation in conjunction with staves in stainless steel for an effect more similar to barrels. Kym Milne MW, a global winemaking consultant guru, reckons the new world is using staves more than chips now.
In red wines, oak products can help fix colour and soften tannin, and chips may be added at a rate of 1 to 5 grams/litre. Additions are lower for white wines, and time on chips is generally not very long, just a few months maximum otherwise drying tannin sensations can develop.
It’s difficult to suggest clear cut examples of each alternative to compare, as many high volume wines are likely to contain a mix of chips and staves, and mid-priced wines a mix of staves and barrel in the blend. To complicate things further, top quality chips, used well, may well taste better and more integrated than low quality staves, used really badly. Essentially barrels are expensive, and as consumers we don’t really like paying a lot for our wine. So chips and staves do at least part of the job of a barrel for a fraction of the cost. You get what you pay for.