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03.29.2006

Or Are Oak Chips "The Beginning of the End?"

Hot on the heels of the debate from the last couple days here on Vinography about whether oak barrels are obsolete, comes news that France will now allow winemakers to use oak chips in winemaking, along with some other new world techniques, including those which lower the alcohol in wines.

The French call them "shavings" but it was announced today by the French Ministry of Agriculture that the lower cost use of oak chips would help French wines better compete on price with others around the world for whom these techniques are, if not prevalent, certainly commonplace.

Reactions have ranged from relief and encouragement to outrage, and, from at least one wine bar patron in Paris, pronouncement of the End of Days.

From my perspective, it's great to see things changing in France, if only because for so long they haven't been. And as many thousands of angry winegrowers are fond of pointing out with bricks and pipe bombs and truckloads of manure, what they've got ain't working.

Read the full story. And in case you missed it, just yesterday the American's pronounced the death of the wine barrel.

Comments (15)

Bradley wrote:
03.29.06 at 7:57 PM

I imagine the premium wines that now use barrels will still use barrels. This is really going to help the plonk that is forced into old, stinky (bretty) wood or no wood at all. The result will be better (chipped) wine at the lower end at less cost. The outcome will be a greater enjoyment by consumers of better (pelleted) wine at a more competitive price. Most consumers won't notice the (staves) difference. It's good wood economics, too. (Uses more of the tree) The dude in the Paris beanery shouldn't fret too much; chances are the kind of wines (high-end) he serves will be unaffected. Or he'll be able to charge a premium to customers that must have truly barrel-aged wine.
Hey, mon ami, you just got a new shiny tool for your kit!

Mike Tommasi wrote:
03.30.06 at 2:55 AM

Well actually I agree, though I place these new "pelleted" wines in the same consumer choice category as soft drinks.

I also agree that producers of real good wine will be unaffected, or perhaps they will be even positively affected: by allowing the low end wines to go fully industrial, discerning consumers will have less of a problem distinguishing flavoured industrial wine from the real thing...

The worst problem right now is that there is a huge amount of plain bad wine being sold with AOC or DOC labels. Now how's that for turning off customers?

Relaxing the rules on soft wine will bring clarity to the market for real wine.

cheers

Mike

St.Vini wrote:
03.30.06 at 9:06 AM

"Relaxing the rules on soft wine will bring clarity to the market for real wine."

uhhhh....exactly how? Seems to me it will muddy the waters. And do you have an accepted definition for "real" wine? Would most people agree with it, given that 95+% of the world's wine consumers drink "soft wines" exclusively?

Oh, and are you sure that these "pelleted" wines are really "new"?

Vini

Geoff Smith wrote:
03.30.06 at 9:48 AM

Dude,

This whole business about oak shavings, oak chips, or roasted oak cubes is all a tempest in a teapot.

No creator of real wine, either in France or anywhere in the world, will be using this stuff.

Geoff

Tyler T wrote:
03.30.06 at 11:16 AM

I have to go with StVini on this one, what is meant by "real" wine? Its fun to rant and rave about oak chips, despite the fact that without the price tag most of us wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The real tragedy is when wines are over oaked, whether with chips or barrels. Its about the fruit, having great fruit. Let's start a revolution if the French decide to beging softening vineyard regulations.

Geoff Smith wrote:
03.30.06 at 11:49 AM

Dude,

If you don't know what "real" wine is, you probably don't know what "oakmore" is.

Geoff

St.Vini wrote:
03.30.06 at 12:02 PM

Mr. Smith,

Can I assume that "real" wines are limited to those found in your retail store?

And "creator" of wine? Really! That is simply BEYOND arrogance....

Cheers,
Vini

GregP wrote:
03.30.06 at 1:03 PM

Geoff,

I also find your comments arrogant and even beyond that, very misguided and ill informed.

Oak barrel replacements, be it oak chips or inner staves, are being used by some very high end wineries, here and abroad. Some, like oak chips, are used to dial in or rather fine tune wines already fermented and ready to bottle. Inner staves are used as direct replacements for new barrels, think of them as gettig new brake pads for your car's brakes instead of ripping the entire assembly out and replacing it from scratch.

Customers have same choices with oak alternatives as they do with new barrels: forest, air dry age, toast level, etc.

I have tasted inner stave wines next to new barrels and well, I actually preferred inner stave, although they do tend to be a bit oakier up front in some cases.

As for the French wine shop owner's comments and yours, both of you would not be able to tell a wine done with oak replacement products if it hit you on the head, there is absolutely no difference in the final product and those who insist they can tell the difference are either very misguided and arrogant or simply ego driven to convince themselves they can. Professionals can't tell the difference, what makes you think you can tell a "real" wine fron "non real" one?

Drink what's IN the bottle, its the only thing that should matter in the end.

03.30.06 at 2:12 PM

Well, another spirited debate.

So I would guess (and this guess is based on my observations over the last 5 years making wine at various facilities) that all of you would be surprised at the amount of oak alternatives used even in premium wines.

I specifically know of some highly rated (94 in WS) wines that use not only oak chips or powder, but also our old friend mega-purple, and some "artificial tannins". Does that make them bad wines? No way. Does it take some of the mystique out of it? Hell yes. But which would you rather have: a shit wine that only used barrels, or a great wine that used a combo of chips and barrels?

I've always used chips during fermentation when I'm worried about getting the potential green flavors out of Sonoma County grapes, or setting color early on. And I'm experimenting with staves this year as well. Does my use of oak chips in tandem with a barrel program make my wine "not real" as some of you have suggested?


It's all about what works with the fruit, and if it works, great! If it doesn't, then we find another way. But don't assume that the 65 or 70 dollar bottle of cab that you covent hasn't had some history with some oak chips. Chances are, it has.

Take care,

J

Ben wrote:
03.30.06 at 8:53 PM

Hey Jeremy.

What're artificial tannins? I'm ignorant here. I assume they're for adding structure to a flat wine, but what are you using to do it?

Ben

Anonymous wrote:
03.30.06 at 9:55 PM

Hey now everyone, don't jump down Geoff's throat. Half of the time he's just joking, and I'm sure he's just joking when it comes to the "oakmore" comment. What the hell is oakmore anyway?!?

Jeremy wrote:
03.31.06 at 5:10 AM

Artificial tannins come in a powder form, I'm not entirely sure what it is, and haven't found an adequate definition. I've never used them, but have always been curious as to what exactly it is, how it works, etc. You can see a picture of some here.

Oakmore is shredded oak. Like chips, but more mulchy. I've also seen oak additions in liquid form(!), but mostly see that in home brew shops. I think they soak wood chips in vodka or neutral spirits. I've never seen the liquid form at a commercial winery.

Cheers,

J

GregP wrote:
03.31.06 at 11:12 AM

"Artificial" tannins are a misnomer. They are simply ground up grape seeds, could be white grape varietals or red, in many cases chardonnay. They are used to add structure to wines that may be lacking it, they also add to the mid palate feel as well making it fuller and richer.

And what you can add , you can also remove. This is where fining comes in as it not only clarifies the wine but binds and thus removes tannins.

Mike Tommasi wrote:
04.02.06 at 3:02 AM

While I live in France I neither own a shop nor have any business in wine...

My point was that makers of cheap wine (I call it vin-coca here) for the bulk market are better off left to do what they want (short of poisoning people) so as to unclutter the market for good wine.

Your average consumer that buys an AOC or DOC wine and finds it barely drinkable will naturally conclude that all those "old" EU regulations are nonsense. And he would be right. Most AOC wines are crap and cloud the image for good wines. If AOC is not a guarantee of "good wine" then why use it?

Let people make crap if they want to (it will probably sell well) outside of AOC, and limit access to prestige labelling to those who steadfastly refuse to flavour wine with oak chips, refuse to chaptalize, refuse to acidify, refuse to make anything other than good fermented grape juice.

If low-end winemakers want to be so stupid as to try and compete with Yellowtail Shiraz, let them!

And as someone already pointed out, it is not just low end wineries that defraud customers with "tweaked" wines. Most of the great names in Bordeaux use reverse osmosis and add sugar, even for sweet wines. This is simply unacceptable.

GregP wrote:
04.03.06 at 11:38 AM

Mike,

RE: Let people make crap if they want to (it will probably sell well) outside of AOC, and limit access to prestige labelling to those who steadfastly refuse to flavour wine with oak chips, refuse to chaptalize, refuse to acidify, refuse to make anything other than good fermented grape juice.


You just excluded EVERY French made wine, First Growth and Grand Cru included.

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