Oaking will add flavour to a home made wine giving a refined air of sophistication transforming it from toe curling hooch to not so toe curling hooch. Not all wines need to be oak aged and generally it is red wines that will benefit most adding a richer nuttier taste and more complex set of tannins. Other subtle tastes added are a mix of vanilla, spice, smoke and possibly caramel.
Fruit wines that are suitable to oak are elderberry, blueberry, blackcurrant and to a lesser extent blackberry. Elderflower wine is the only white wine I would oak personally. Recipes that favour oaking are dry rather than sweet so the subtle changes of the tannins can be tasted.
Now I don’t own a barrel as they cost thousands of pounds, need to be filled with 50 gallons of wine and because Ms Gazette reminds me we have a small house with no cellar. The next best thing is oak chips. They divide between French and American oak, light or strongly toasted or maybe even from an old sherry barrel. Go for French oak in my view for a classic taste, using a light toast makes it mellower and easier to control. Only get sherry chips for a sherry recipe and stay away from powders or extract as you cannot monitor their taste and remove them from the must.
Generally speaking it is total anarchy adding oak as there are no hard and fast rules. You could add at the start of fermentation but it is advisable to do it when maturing after secondary fermentation has ended and probably after the final rack into bulk ageing. The wine is approaching its final taste allowing you to gauge how much oak you want, if any at all. Again how much to add and how long to leave it is open to debate. I think three months but using towards the lower end of the volume needed – 5g of chips per British gallon of wine rather than the 15g maximum.
Before adding the chips you should sterilise them either with a 2 minute boil or a 24 hour soaking with half a campden tablet in a large sealed jam jar of water.
Always keep you oak chips in a sealed bag and reseal after grabbing what you need. Don’t be tempted to reuse the chips as the sugar and yeast present will be a breading ground for bacteria.