All about fake oak

fake oak
Just slip these oak spirals in the wine tank, and you’re on your way to barrel aging.

What is fake oak? Why do winemakers use it instead of oak barrels? How can I spot it?

Fake oak is not an official wine term, but it best describes what has become a common way to add oak aging to wines that cost less than $20 to $25. Instead of using oak barrels, winemakers substitute oak chips, oak staves, oak inserts, oak spirals, oak cubes, oak dominoes, oak chains, and oak bags.

The reason for these barrel substitutes? They cost a tiny fraction of an oak barrel, as little as 10 percent of a $1,000 – or more – new barrel. Plus, they’re much more efficient at imparting oak flavors and tannins than barrels, which reduces aging time and cuts costs even more.

The most important thing to remember about fake oak is that it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s used by the winemaker that matters. Some try to mimic barrel aging to reproduce the subtlety and character it brings, while others use it to add specific flavors that can be touted on the back label – the chocolate and cinnamon and cherry cobbler that aren’t common with traditional barrel aging.

In this, fake oak comes in an almost countless number of flavors and barrel varieties, replicating oak combinations from around the world and every flavor associated with wine – and then some. One charred toast option adds “super dark color, smoke, vanilla, and caramel flavors.”

How can wine drinkers tell if wine has real oak or fake oak? I asked Steve Menke, the Colorado state enologist and an associate professor at Colorado State University, to help us spot fake oak. Menke, who has made wine throughout the U.S. and Canada, prefers the term alternative oak, and emphasizes that fake oak is not necessarily a bad thing.

“If oak alternatives are used properly – not too much and not too easily extractable, most consumers do not notice the difference between them and barrel aging,” he told me. “That said, many winemakers are using these alternatives without much skill or caution, as the practice is still young.”

Hence vanilla pudding flavors in chardonnay.

These tips should help you spot wines with fake oak:

• Price. Given the economics of winemaking, there’s no way producers can afford barrel aging for most of the wine made in the U.S. That means, says Menke, a $15 or $20 cabernet sauvignon will almost certainly use fake oak, and a similar cabernet with barrel aging will have to cost $25 or more. In this, Big Wine is no different than many smaller producers; they just may be less subtle about it.

• Region. My experience has been, save for some parts of Spain, France, and Italy that mandate barrel aging, fake oak is used everywhere in the world. And most of the wine where barrel aging is required, save for Rioja in Spain, costs $25 or more.

• Over the top flavors. Fake oak adds its flavors more quickly, since the wine surrounds the oak product. That’s much different than with a barrel, where the wine touches only the inside of the barrel. That difference in the surface area that is exposed to the wine means faster extraction of flavors, so that winemakers who leave the fake oak in too long get cherry cobbler instead of bing cherry.

• Ask. Retailers should have a good idea about how the wine they carry is made. Also, Menke recommends asking the winemaker when you’re in the tasting room what kind of oak he or she uses.

5 thoughts on “All about fake oak

  • By Jim Caudill -

    Not really accurate, nor fair, to say Fake Oak (and to legitimize that trend of thinking right now is a whole ‘nother conversation) but especially so since all that Oak is made from….Oak, just in a different form. The desired end result is the same, just a different delivery system. Along with micro-oxygenation, winemakers have really dialed all this in over the past many years. There’s hardly a bottle made under those price points that doesn’t use oak adjuncts (another curious name that is commonly used). Arguably, some wines that were getting old, tired barrels are better off with the use of oak adjuncts that impart more texture and flavors.

  • By Joel Stopha -

    Oak alternatives are in no way, shape, or form “Fake Oak”. Oak alternatives are made from the same oak trees that barrel staves are made from, so to call it “Fake Oak” is doing a disservice to your readers and people that are interested in the wine making process. Many wineries in Chile have been using oak alternatives for years and, therefore, have a very good understanding of extraction rates and flavors. Just as in the US wine industry, any bottle of Chilean wine under $15 has certainly never seen a barrel for aging, but that doesn’t mean the wine quality is inferior. Just different, or as stated in the article, “neither good or bad”.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thank you for both comments. I don’t disagree, but here’s why I use fake oak. Until the wine business finds an accurate term that doesn’t confuse consumers, fake oak is a better description. That’s because oak alternatives, non-traditional oak, oak adjuncts, and so forth are more jargon that consumers don’t understand. Plus, consumers have been taught for three decades that every bottle of wine that gets oak is lovingly aged in oak barrels. That wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true now. That needs to stop, too, for me to use a different term.

      In a perfect world, the oak aging method would be listed on the wine’s ingredient label. But we don’t do that either, do we?

  • By Jim Caudill -

    This is indeed insider baseball but now, in tasting notes and back labels and such, if it’s oak adjuncts we write “aged in Oak” and if it’s in barrels, we say aged in Oak barrels, XX% new

    Very subtle, but accurate.

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