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03.28.2006

Oak Barrels are Obsolete?

As if the wine world weren't trembling enough from the rumblings of modernity and globalization, the closure wars, the entry of China into the marketplace, and winegrowers rioting in France and more recently in Chile, now a new crack appears in the foundation of traditional wine thinking.

Barrels are obsolete. Not necessary. Irrelevant. And, by the way, far too expensive.

At least that's what some winemakers, including one fairly accomplished one whose wines I've reviewed here, are saying. The oak trees of the world are no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief but I'm sure this latest pronouncement will bring up all the usual questions and concerns about what is "real" wine and what is not.

Where do you draw the line between wine and an oak flavored fermented grape beverage?

For what it's worth, the folks who make things like oak chips (literally small chunks of oak which are steeped in vats of wine much like teabags) and wine staves (sticks or bricks of oak that are submerged into the wine with the same effect), as well as the winemakers who employ such devices are all saying that this is a cheaper, easier way to get the same results as aging wine in oak barrels (assuming you use both methods for the same amount of time).

These techniques (which are technically illegal according to the appellation rules of many countries, but rumored to be employed nonetheless) are generally used for cheaper wines whose cost structures can't support the pricey new oak barrels that the big names use. But increasingly, according to this article, some pretty expensive wines are utilizing these technologies, which make for ultimately lower overheard and higher profit margins. What high-end winery doesn't want that, I ask you?

Read the full story and make up your own mind. The real question is, of course, can you taste the difference?

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.