July 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

New EU Regulation Knocks Oak Chip Off Gallic Shoulders--And Into French Wine

by Panos Kakaviatos

  • Since Britain is the leading export market for almost every wine- producing nation, it's not surprising that exhibitors flock to the London International Wine & Spirits Fair from all over the world.
  • Big producers and low-cost wines dominate the British market, in stark contrast to the growing U.S. popularity of higher-end wines. Even so, there is a viable place for small American producers in the UK market.
  • Because the show draws attendance from all of Europe, exhibitors can connect with potential markets around the continent.
The government calls it a winemaking revolution: French winemakers can legally use wood shavings to flavor their wines for the first time ever, under government authorization passed in March this year following EU guidelines. Heresy for French consumers, perhaps, but many see an opportunity to battle New World competition with the same wooden weapons.

While dining recently in Paris's increasingly fashionable 20th arrondissement, I overheard several French wine lovers excitedly denounce the use of oak chips in winemaking, which the French government allowed last March, as part of a package to better adapt French wine to the international market.

"This is terrible; we are bowing to the international homogenization of wine taste," one young woman almost shouted. "French wine is about soil, culture and history, and part of that history means wine aged in barrels, not artificially flavored with seasoned chips," she added.

As flabbergasted as some French consumers are about the use of oak chips for wine stored in steel tanks or even in older barrels before bottling--long common practice in the New World, and an inexpensive substitute for barrels--many a French winemaker with an eye on the market is actually quite pleased.

"That is exactly what is needed," remarked Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier in the famous Bordeaux region of Pessac Leognan. Though he feels neither need nor market pressure to change methods for his internationally known wines--aged in barrels--his advice to producers of lower-end French wines is: "They must adapt to the changing marketplace," and that includes use of oak chips to flavor wine that "can be hard from lesser terroirs."

One such winemaker, Didier Cousiney, from the Entre-Deux-Meres appellation in Bordeaux, conveyed the same ideas to Agence France Presse in April: "The use of wood chips will give us the same weapons used by the New World, to make wines that can seduce younger drinkers who like softer wines."

Even professionals who prefer not to use oak chips priced at only 7.20 euros per kilo, much less than the cost of a barrel--recognize their advantages (1 euro = $1.28).

"We had this debate the other day in Bordeaux with a château I consult," remarked David Morrison, an Australian winemaking advisor based in Narbonne, France.

"As a winemaker, at the price we are selling the wine, I do not think we want to use them, because there is also a definite image problem," he said.

"With wood chips, the Bordeaux cachet is gone; you become as common as everyone else. And for this particular château, which sells for 6 euros per bottle, using chips would create an image problem also for its price-point, which we would like to set at 10 euros a bottle. That was my argument against them," Morrison explained.

New EU Regulation Knocks Oak Chip Off Gallic Shoulders--And Into French Wine
David Morrison
On the other hand, Morrison does recommend the use of chips for some clients in the south of France. "It does bring something to the wine, without a lot of cost and without a lot of manpower," he said. "You are adding both an aromatic component to the wine and a textural component."

Chips are used regularly in many wines as a chef uses seasoning. They can be flavored and some winemakers even use them in barrels, to better adjust the vanilla notes one can get in barrel-aged wine, according to Christophe Mangeard, researcher at the Bordeaux-based negociant Yvon Mau. The chips also vary in size, from powder to large chunks. Though oak predominates, other types of wood have also been used to obtain other aromatic profiles, and chips can also add structure to the wine, as they release tannin, depending on their quality. Even more, for today's tastes, Mangeard said, chips also add a hint of sugar, which can soften the taste of harder wines.

But most important: Chips may also add a competitive edge in giving winemakers flexibility they did not have before.

If You Can't Beat 'Em…

The new French law calls for a "viticultural revolution" for France, outlining steps to be taken in the near future, such as clarifying the way appellation of origin (AOC) wines are named; reducing the number of wine categories to AOC, vins des pays and vins de table; including names of grapes on wine labels and last but not least, using oak chips to flavor wine.

Legislation author Bernard Pomel, who submitted his report to the government on Mar. 24, told Le Figaro newspaper, "We must make wine for consumers, and not wines which producers dream about."

Indeed, Christian Paly, president of the national AOC confederation the CNAOC, welcomed the idea of oak chips "for all except the AOC wines that want to do without them."

It's a classic case of "if you cannot beat them, join them," remarked Jean Haudy, an enologist in Strasbourg. "I used to be against their use about 10 years ago, but recognize the realism for the marketplace."

Last year, some European lawmakers feared that the wine accord finally signed between the EU and the U.S. earlier this year would force untraditional New World winemaking innovation on Europe. But many officials sing a different tune today, seeing an opportunity in such innovation.

In a speech last February in Brussels, for example, EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel noted that the deal would facilitate increased sales of European wine in export markets, because it would update some of the existing tools in winemaking, including the use of wood chips.

"It's obvious that we have to change; we have to do it now and we have to go for a solid and lasting reform," he said.

"The future of French wine is outside France," echoed French Agricultural Minister Dominique Bussereau, in an interview this past May with the French wine monthly La Revue du Vin de France.

In 2005, French wine exports--not including Champagne--fell another 2.2% according to the French Wine and Spirit Export Association. A hard pill for the proud Gallic nation, which is witnessing declining domestic wine consumption just as New World wines leapfrog ahead in growing external markets.

New EU Regulation Knocks Oak Chip Off Gallic Shoulders--And Into French Wine
Philippe Casteja
Photo: Panos Kakaviatos
No Magic Bullet

Association president Philippe Casteja said that the use of chips will indeed put French winemakers on an equal footing with the New World, but tried to reassure an angry French public that one should not confuse barrel aging with wood shavings.

"What consumers must understand is that chips are not the same as barrels; they cannot really replace them," said Casteja, who also owns several well-known châteaux in Bordeaux and is president of the Council of Medoc Classed Growths.

"Barrels allow a wine to age over time through a slow and light oxidation; they allow for a light extraction of oak flavor which over a longer time period allows also for a better integration of the oak and the fruit flavor of the wine."

Christophe Mangeard at Yvon Mau also welcomed the authorization, but believes it may have come too late. "It is a tool that we can now finally use, and which we should use for certain appellations," he said.

"From a technical point of view, we had been penalized for not having access to it. Today I see that more and more of our Anglo-Saxon consumers seek wines with less wood-derived notes, less toast and vanilla and more fruit-- but better late than never," he added.

David Morrison cautioned against too much enthusiasm. "The use of chips, the listing of grapes on labels, flashier labels--all such measures will help, but there is no magic bullet," he said.

"The reality is that one has to work harder in France to make the style of wine demanded by the international market. The whole system (in France) is basically geared to dragging down quality. The cooperatives, for example, do not pay enough attention to using older vines, smaller bunches, clean fruit and fighting disease," he explained. "It is far easier to have cleaner and fruitier wine made in Chile, for example, because the weather is so good and dry during the harvest."

Southern France reminds the Australian native of the Hunter Valley, which is humid and where disease pressure for the vineyard is very high. "There are limits to how much wood chips can mask weak wine," Morrison said.

(Based in France, Panos Kakaviatos is a regular contributor to Decanter as well as Wines & Vines. He tastes Bordeaux wine regularly as an independent journalist. Visit his Web site at connectionstowine.com. To comment on this story, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.)
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