Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wood Chips

The end of the world is nigh... Last spring, the INAO (a body governing the rules and regulations of winemaking in France) chose to allow the use of wood chips in regional non-AOC wines. This was meant to help low-end, high-yield French producers compete with inexpensive Australian and South American wines.

Now, in a jaw-dropping follow-up to that first break with rigorous French tradition, the self-same INAO has ruled that AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée, i.e. the serious stuff) wines can use wood chips in tanks to give wines that oaky flavor, without using oak barrels.

Horrors! Why not a few drops of black cherry extract or a dash of vanilla?

Winemaking is a challenge, it's acrobatic (or even artistic, as I posited last time), but one of the things that make wine culturally and gastronomically rich is the labor and craft behind coaxing subtlety and fullness from the soil and vines and fruits.

Will the fact that the oaky flavor comes not from traditional, burnt barrels of thick French oak but instead from chips floating around in the vat like cubes of orange and apple in sangria be indicated on the bottle? I can see a whole new labelling system. "OAK FLAVORED CABERNET" vs. "BARREL RAISED"... OK, I'm exaggerating, but still, the point stands. What's going on here?!

I was reading about the phylloxera crisis in the 19th century that devastated the vineyards of France; at their wits' end, the winemakers tried finally mixing the lees with water, making what was called piquette. With the INAO's new ruling, I feel like we're heading for high-class piquette.

Might as well put gold leaf over damp cardboard...

Here's a link to an article (in French).


1 comment:

Craig Camp said...

In all honesty, I don't think we have to worry about Lafite using wood chips. I don't think it would be an issue to use chips in generic Bordeaux AOC - the majority of which only see stainless steel anyway. Using chips could help low end AOC wines compete on the international market, while using them would never cross the mind of elite producers.