This week, we tested an innovative new product simply called “Oak Bottle.” It claims to make “an ordinary wine or liquor extraordinary” in just 24-96 hours. This handmade, pure, medium-toasted, American oak bottle appropriately retails for $112. Oak is expensive! Considering that the average cost of an oak barrel is approximately $1000 (a little bit less for American oak and a little more for French oak), its use in wine-making adds a significant cost to the price of your bottle of wine. But…
Do you want Oak?
Trends worldwide suggest no. In fact, globally, consumers are demanding wines that are less ripe, less alcoholic and with less oak. If you have stayed away from Aussie wines in the last five years, you may be pleasantly surprised to see the emergence and popularity of cooler and high-elevation areas such as the Yarra Valley, Clare and Eden Valleys, as well as Tasmania. There is a movement in the country to produce chardonnays that are leaner, steely even, with minimal use of oak – they have little resemblance to the more traditional, voluptuous bombshells of old. Oak flavours can make for challenging food matches and can subdue the freshness of wine, which is why quality-focused winemakers use oak sparingly and appropriately.
Even if you did want oak, would it make a poor wine taste better? Well, oak can mask the flavour of certain faults in high enough concentrations. Sugar or sweetness can do the same thing – it’s like the Febreze of wine. To harp on the example of chardonnay, which is a relatively innocuous grape, personality and dimension can be added with oak. The oak ageing of the wine may support the fruit and help to connect elements in the wine.
How does oak work?
Oak, when done right, is not all bad. Its use in muscular young reds can soften the wine’s tannins, tame its gritty character, harmonize and add an integrated, spiced flavour due to gentle oxidation. Slow, gentle oxidation is key! In fact, the primary use of oak is to provide slow, measured ageing so that the flavours in the wine mesh and edgy elements are rounded so that the wine becomes drinkable. Oak flavour is just a side effect and one that can be minimized with less time in barrel or the use of older barrels.
With light wines like Pinot Noir, tighter grained French oak is preferred and often older barrels (2nd or 3rd fill as opposed to 1st fill) are opted for so that the flavours are more subtle and don’t mask the wine. More edgy varietals such as tempranillo need longer ageing times to be tamed. A preferred choice for this variety would be the looser grained American oak and the wine may require five years or more in barrel.
Another option to decrease the flavour of oak and the rapidity of ageing is to use larger barrels instead of smaller barrels.
Does the Oak Bottle work?
The Oak Bottle in question is very small – so small, in fact, that it holds only 750 ml of wine. Meanwhile, the mini version, which was tested, holds only half a standard sized bottle of wine (355 ml). It certainly qualifies as the smallest oak vessel we have ever encountered. Thus, the manufacturer’s claim that the product is “the fastest oak ageing vessel ever created” is quite correct. In just 24 hours, the wine was significantly imbued with oak flavour. Compared to the unoaked wine sample, the wine out of oak smelled like a log cabin: toasty and smoky.
The main problem was that the oak was not integrated into the wine. It was disjointed, it stood out, overwhelmed the fruit on the nose and lingered on the finish. Proper integration cannot be achieved in the time frame of 24-96 hours. There was some subtle oxidation which actually benefited the young, unoaked and inexpensive test wine. However, decanting the wine may have been more beneficial.
Despite it all, the manufacturer claims are largely accurate. For example: “Using our Oak Bottle® you can now infuse the same oak flavors that once took 3 years to infuse using a 59 Gallon oak barrel, in less than just 4 days!” The word “flavour” is used appropriately. The effect of slow oxidation over time just doesn’t happen in the same way it would in an oak barrel. The primary benefit of oak barrels is lost here. However, if you want big oaky flavour – notes of vanilla, smoke and toast, then you will not be disappointed. For our tastes, 48 hours is too long for most wines. For more subtlety, try it for 12-24 hours. Another idea would be to age only half the wine, in the mini-bottle, and then blend it back with the unoaked portion. Regardless, you must love the flavour of oak to derive enjoyment from this product.
Will it work on spirits?
What may be a more appropriate use of this vessel is adding flavour to, or quick-ageing spirits. Whisky and tequila have the ability to absorb more of this concentrated wood flavour than wine. If you use the vessel to age spirits, do not use it for wine afterwards. Those strongly flavoured spirits will saturate the wood.
Be sure to treat the bottle as the instructions dictate. A water fill for 24 hours prior to use is a must in order to expand the fibers of wood enough so that there is little leakage. The barrel wax also comes in handy for plugging small leaks. This is a natural product, so there are normal imperfections. The suggested lifespan of the Oak Bottle is 50-60 uses. The oak flavours will certainly diminish over time as will the bottle’s oxidation benefit as the grains gradually get blocked. Therefore, if filled often, the wine will likely need more time in the Oak Bottle with each future use.
You should not have any illusions about there being a miracle device out there for turning an ordinary wine into an extraordinary one. Great grapes and sensitive, responsive winemaking are still the only tricks we know that can produce a remarkable wine.
That being said, the Oak Bottle can mask certain faults, and can add authentic oak flavour quickly.
It is also a terrific novelty of a gadget: this is a real, actual, oak barrel, shaped like a wine bottle, for you to experiment with in your kitchen – apart from what you think of the finished product, the amateur winemaker in you will certainly have some fun. But be warned that it is easy to oak-verdose. Our wine, after a mere 24 hours, was brimming with oakiness. Go easy with this product. Even if oak is your cup of tea, learn to use this sparingly, like seasoning in your cuisine. Another idea would be to buy better wine and less of it, if you have a restrictive budget.
Happy drinking, everyone.