Thursday, March 22, 2007

SIlly Frenchmen. Oak Chips are for New World Wines

So I'm cruising the pages of NY Times columnist Eric Asimov's blog, The Pour, and I come across a recent post of his. The post is in regard to an article that appeared on Decanter's website. The story, in brief, was about surge in the sales of oak wood chips to winemakers in Bordeaux - a surge of as much as 200%. Now I know you guys are sitting there saying "why the hell is he writing about wood chips?" Well, there are two interesting aspects to this...hear me out.

First, the increased sale of wood chips to Bordeaux indicates that wine makers in the "old world" are turning to techniques used in the new world, including the US. You see, traditionally, in order for wine to acquire the oak flavor, it was aged in oak barrels for anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. Well, oak barrels are expensive. More importantly, the during the time it is aging to gain that oakeyness, that wine is not generating any money for the vineyard. Enter the oak wood chips. Now, following the examples of the "new world" wine producers, wood chips can be used to give that wine the oak flavor...and it can be done much faster, and much cheaper than oak barrels.

I know I still don't care. Well, how about this...despite the increase in sales, most winemakers prefer to be discreet, asking, for example, for their invoice not to reflect the purchase of wood chips. So what? Well, my point is how do you know which Pomerol or Margot is aged in oak barrels and which ones are using wood chips to manufacture the oak flavors? And, perhaps more importantly, do you as a wine drinker care? I know I do.

The second interesting aspect of this article is the fact that I was under the impression that the French had banned the use of wood chips in 2006, even though in 2005 the European Union’s decided to allow their use. It turns out that though the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, which regulates French A.O.C. wines, had last November banned the use of wood chips. Only problem is that the ban hasn’t yet been signed into law. Ha ha ha, bureaucracy...what a shock!
As a result many winemakers refer to the EU regulation authorizing the use of wood chips post fermentation. For the moment only chips and sticks are in demand in Bordeaux, as wood powders are not authorised by the EU, and the use of staves is complicated.

Those who are against the authorized use of wood chips are said to fall into two camps, those who are already using, but don't want their neighbours to get started, and others who fear that legalising wood chips will open the flood gates to what they dub 'new world wine making practices' such as adding water, or using wood powders.

Me personally, I see it this way: If the vineyard buying the wood chips is a small, struggling farmer just trying to desperately compete and stay afloat, then I'm ok with that. However, if the large, sought-after Chateaus are the ones purchasing and using these new world techniques simply to increase profits, then I have a problem, and they have some 'splaining to do, Lucy. I just shouldn't have to worry about shortcuts and doctoring if I'm buying a bottle for $500. That's my stand on it.

So, let me ask you fine wine you care? Do you have a position on this subject? If so, I'd love to hear it. The mic is open...sound off like you've got a pair.


Blanc de Noir said...

I do not mind the oak chips, if you intend to make a $20 wine, you probably can not afford the new barrels. I do think that the label should tell you something about how the oak flavour came to be. Some new world wineries use the word oaked, or barrel aged at least the label gives you an indication of the oak source.If the appellations rules say that the wine should be aged in cask for a certain period of time than no cheating. The appellation label has become a brand with certain expectations for the consumer.

The Vine Guy said...

I completely agree with you blanc de noir. I don't mind the use of chips either, provided the better and more respected chateaus and appellations don't use it as a source for diminishing the quality of wine they produce.

MyManMisterC said...

Comes down to taste, right? Is the oak flavor that different between oak chips and oak barrels? I am asking because I want to know, not a rhetorical question.

The Vine Guy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Vine Guy said...

Mr. C.

In my opinion, yes. Compare the oakyness of a young domestic Cabernet to the oakyness found in say a Spanish Rioja or Intalian Brunello. Grantyed they are very different wines, but those examples would work because we're dealing with oak aged, versus oak manufactured. Try it, and let me know if you see a disttinction.

Sergeant-At-Arms said...

Why don't you just plant more oak trees?