This article is from the WineMaking FAQ, by malak@CAM.ORG (Don Buchan) with numerous contributions by others.
Why bother with a barrel?
Oak adds a compelling complexity to wine. You should make sure the kind
of wine you want to make is well suited for oak, since it is more
expensive and trouble. For example, just about any high tannin red wine
will benefit. Many whites such as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc will
also. However, riesling should be left alone. Oak barrels also have an
aesthetic quality that other materials can't match.
If you wish to oak your wine but can't afford a barrel (or don't have
the space), use oak chips, powder or sticks. Be very careful not to add
too much or leave them in the wine too long as the surface to liquid
ratio is quite high and therefore oaking is very quick. Sometimes this
may only be equal to the time it takes to ferment your wine, depending
on how oaky you like your wine and how much you put in. It is
recommended that you closely follow a wine oaked in this fashion by
An easy way to add oak flavor wine to just the degree that pleases your
taste is to take a regular wine bottle, fill it half full of oak chips
and add Vodka to fill the bottle. Let it set for a month or two. Drain
off the liquid and keep it to flavour your wine. Experiment, using a
tablespoon per gallon; if this is insufficient, keep adding a teaspoon
until you reach the desired result.