Monday, December 13, 2004

Micro-Oxidation: useful tool or the Devil's toy...

Let’s start with this excerpt from Vineyard & Winery Management’s ( 2004 article on Oak Alternatives:

“The used barrel market has gone to hell,” proclaims Scott McLeod, winemaker for Neibaum-Coppola, and an enthusiastic practitioner of oak alternatives. Like so many of his colleagues, McLeod is always looking for new ways to give Niebaum- Coppola customers quality wine at a good price, while expressing concern for the environment and the bottom line. So McLeod did a little research on growing and harvesting oak trees in France for wine barrel use, by contacting Tonnellerie St. Jacques. What he found was shocking.

"At harvest, the average oak tree in a protected French forest is between 100-120 years old with a trunk diameter of about 70 cm. Once the tree is felled, only an approximate 5-meter section of trunk is reserved for processing oak barrel staves. “After trimming and milling, coopers get enough staves, with a thickness of about 30mm, for only five to six barrels,” says McLeod. “After two years in use wine penetrates a stave only about 5mm, which means that approximately 80 percent of the oak barrel is for structure, while just 20 percent has an influence on the character and quality of the wine.” At $800 apiece, it's easy to see that wineries are paying a high price for barrel structure and integrity.

"Combine economics and environmental protection and you begin to see why McLeod is high on oak alternatives. “From the same five-meter section of French oak, you get 120 oak staves, of the same quality with the same toast level, that can be used as tank inserts,” he says. At Niebaum- Coppola, McLeod uses a combination of oak barrels and oak stave tank inserts for aging and maturing the Diamond Series Merlot, Pinot Noir, Claret, Zinfandel, Syrah and Chardonnay, priced at $14-$17 each. “Essentially what you're doing is purchasing an unassembled barrel and not paying for the packaging,” he says.

"McLeod buys his French oak staves with medium-plus toasting from StaVin and rotates them in the tank insert matrix about every three years. “On the economic side, you're not loosing six to seven percent of the wine to ullage as you would in barrels. And the use of oak stave inserts is much more environmentally friendly.”

From Wine Business Monthly’s article on
“Micro-Oxygenation in Wine” :

“…OenoDev has since manufactured and implemented thousands of micro-oxygenation units throughout the world where the technique is applied under the firm's guidance. France is the clear leader in micro-oxygenation, with about two thousand units in production. Italy is second with about a thousand units, followed by South Africa and Chile. There are about 25 wineries practicing micro-oxygenation in the U.S. Australia has just begun to venture into micro-oxygenation.”

Also see ~

Aussie perspective on the economics of barrel alternatives
tank stave product itself (link to images).
And from
Wine Business Monthly’s look at oak in wine (Nov 2001):

“One alternative for using barrels to age wine is a process called micro-oxygenation (see
"Micro-Oxygenation in Wine," page 56). While 86 percent of our respondents have heard of micro-oxygenation, only 14 percent have ever used it. This differed by size of winery, however, with large wineries much more likely than small wineries to have used micro-oxygenation (see chart 9). Of those who have not used micro-oxygenation, about 28 percent indicated they are considering using micro-oxygenation in the next two years. Large wineries were more likely than smaller wineries to be considering the use of micro-oxygenation (see chart 10).”

Now most of this information is several years old, and indicates that many larger wineries, as well as some mid & smaller wineries, have experimented with micro-oxidation. It’s perhaps easier to experiment with for bigger wineries as they’re better funded, and they also don’t have to risk as great a percentage of their vintage in a single experiment, as a micro-producer would.

Wait - what’s this?
Several years of experimentation and acceptance – and Armageddon hasn’t happened yet?
I mean Niebaum- Coppola’s hardly an industry pariah! Hell, they’re a brick & mortar establishment – in NAPA VALLEY no less!!
How many average consumers even are aware of the fact that they’re using oak alternatives?
Has either Jim Laube or Robert Parker snubbed them for their digression from the path of righteousness?

Now Niebaum- Coppola hasn’t stated that they use micro-ox, but that’s the next logical step. As they’re using oak alternatives, they’re getting less of the oxidative effects of barrels, and changing the way the wine matures…
Wouldn’t it make sense to start looking at ways to mimic the oxygen transfer that barrels impart?

Perhaps it’s not the mark of the Devil that the popular media’s trying to make it after all. Perhaps it’s yet another tool that winemakers can utilize to maximize their wine’s tannin & color potential.

Does it really threaten the established wine industry? Does it threaten to flood the market with wines that are cheaply made (read as “products lacking quality & integrity”)? Will it drive down quality, and elevate plonk instead?
I think that it would’ve been exposed for that in the last 13 years if indeed it was the case.

Sure it’s different than aging in a barrel, and the oak stave products I’ve seen still need some fine tuning on the issue of uniform toasting. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s also a potential issue with how the oaks’ compounds are extracted into the wine, as well as an issue of the lack of evaporation of the wine. But, having said that, if it’s supple mature wines that we’re supposed to be after, and if there’s a new way to get to that destination without giving up our quality drive, perhaps it should be embraced for what it is.

After all, weren’t telephones once maligned as the work of the Devil until everyone got used to the increased information flow and convenience?

And if traditionalists say that “these techniques were never applied to wines before” – I say “So what?”. The cooper in 1750 didn’t have access to the hydraulic ram that’s used to split French oak logs in France, while today that’s commonplace. If in fact some of the wines are changed by the use of micro-ox and barrel alternatives, so what? Can’t you still trust your own palate and buy what you like? Wouldn't the prevailing will of the consumer drive poor products out, or at least minimze them?
And c’mon already, if France - which is about as ‘traditional’ as it gets -uses Micro-ox and has started to allow oak chips, as well as Italy…

Perhaps the danger lies in someone actually liking a wine which has seen micro-ox, and not knowing it. Perhaps the danger is in our perception of what we should like, rather than what we do or can like

If the only end result is improved wines at reduced costs, where is the harm?
Perhaps it’s just an ugly knock to the ego…


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February 12, 2009 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Joel M Parker said...

my belief is that hard work is valuable. Hesiod say's time. Sell less wine and only feed yourself, your family, and occasionally a valued neighbor. If a desire to make tried and true wine is augmented in the slightest for capital gain then that too will be evidence of a life without the virtue of compassion.

January 08, 2010 6:09 PM  
Anonymous Just Jack said...

Joel I get the sentiment, but if that logic held true we would have none of the great wines we have today. Life is about balance and wine making is as well. Balance between fruit and tannin, between sugar and acid and yes, between capital gain and the spiritual nature of the fruit we all love so well.

As a friend of mine in Napa put it "I don't make wine in order to make money, I make money in order to make wine"

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