October 24, 2006
Monkeying with Barrels

Here's something to chew on next time you taste a chardonnay whose oak flavor triggers visions of stacked barrels disappearing in stately regiments into the dark bowels of a winery's cave: There's a strong chance that wine never was in a barrel, or if it was the oak you're tasting came more from blocks or chips of oak floating in the wine, not the cask itself, which might be so old and used it doesn't have any more flavor to give up.

This week's issue of Wine Business Insider gives an early look at the findings of an annual survey to measure the growing use of oak chips by California winemakers, and the results have to be depressing to anyone who thinks one of the joys of wine is its link to historic and traditional production techniques. The survey, whose results will be explored more extensively in the December issue of Wine Business Monthly, found that 77 percent of small wineries, 85 percent of mid-size wineries and all large wineries use oak chips, blocks, planks, sawdust and the like to give consumers the impression that wines have been aged in barrels and barrels alone. It's perfectly legal, but it is deceptive, and some winemakers concede that the flavors that these substitutes provide just aren't the same as if the wine actually were affected by barrels alone.

The preview by Wine Business Insider, incidentally, was prompted by a report out of France that the French are to continue to ban wood chips and the like from their "appellation controlee" wines on the grounds that their use masks the terrior, or sense of place, they expect a wine to represent. The French pronouncement was in response to the European Union's loosening of winemaking standards to allow the use of oak chips under some conditions. This was done so European vintners could better compete with New World winemakers primarily in Australia and California. Italian winemakers are as irked as the French about the change, and could adopt regulations as restrictive as the French. The Italians already have come up with the perfect term for such doctored and misleading wines; they call them "Pinocchio wines."

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