Pinocchio Wine & The Future of Europe

The Europe we all know and love from history, the one in which factions, tribes and families fight among one another for power, influence and self interest is emerging in the debate about what to do to do with a lake of European wine no one wants.

The past few months has been a busy one for European wine policy. The EU released a proposal that would result in the ripping out of 400,000 hectare of vineyards and reduce the amount paid for turning wine into industrial alcohol. Meanwhile, a deal was struck with America that would allow wines into the EU that didn’t live up to previous standards of production and at the same time grant Europeans the right to use production methods such as oak chips and oak staves in place of oak barrels for aging.

The debate over the EU’s proposal to restructure European wine by reducing the number of vineyards begins today. A block consisting of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal are against the reforms. These are the major wine producing countries. Those not SO against the proposed reforms are England and new producing countries like Slovenia.

The difference? The major wine producers get billions in subsides from the EU while the likes of England and other smaller producing nations get next to nothing.

That’s not to say that the main concern among the European Nations is a reduction in subsides. The Italians, for one, are in a tizzy over the dreaded "Pinocchio Wines".

Pinocchio Wines. You know, any wine that is produced with the addition of oak flavoring that is not imparted simply by putting the wine in a VERY expensive oak barrel. In other words the Italians are upset, indicated by debates in their Parliament, that the new EU rules allowing the use of oak flavoring tools such as chips does not also demand that use of these "artificial aging" techniques be outlined on labels.

The argument the Italians are making is that by not noting the use of oak chips on Italian wine labels leads to " the standardization of wines at the
lowest level to the detriment of the consumer."

(One wonders to where the line is to be drawn when it comes to listing ingredients and winemaking techniques on labels.)

You see, here is the problem in criticizing the use of Oak Chips as something underhanded as the Italians seem to be: Whether it is oak barrels or oak chips, the desired result is the same. There is a manipulation of the wine. What many Italians don’t like is that it’s far cheaper to use oak chips than it is to age wine in oak barrels. And in many cases, the results are very difficult to tell apart by the average drinker.

The Europeans will work this out…in time. The debate over the restructuring of the European wine market, subsidies for distillation and the removal of vineyards is far more interesting and important than the "Pinocchio Debate" that is ensuing in Italy.

2 Responses

  1. JohnLopresti - July 19, 2006

    Some of us remember as if ancient history the Inglenook panic because Riunite was dominating the 1980s corner family grocer shelf space. Internationally G8 is facing the social welfare components of agricultural protectionism, a very ironically funny debate, considering the producers of comestibles such as winegrapes, understand what supports mean to family farmers. But, you are right that perhaps Chateau Lafite might like some subsidies; I doubt seriously they will apply for some. In Spain (online) recently I read the label specifics of the Iranzo ‘chateau’, which is producing some inexpensive, well made, fairly natural red varietally labeled wines. I appreciate your links, as there is a lot happening beneath the surface in these disputes. I can think of one large northcoast producer now owner of hundreds of hectares in Chile, whose labels could be more forthright about beverage composition fractions sourced offshore. The premium producers in France long have wished for their southern neighbors’ wines to have less dominance, but, as everywhere, to the mundane purchaser price often matters a lot. As with plastic corks, oak chips perform some of the original functions of earlier methods of vinification. If consumers cannot discern tannins bin-mellowed but the quercetins mask other young flavors, those wines will appear on the same tables as Riunite and at a similar price as bulk wines. It is true technology now pioneered in the US has spread back to Europe, and artful ways of cost-reduction are appearing everywhere in the decisionmaking process. I hope the EU leadership has an informed debate, aside from the hype. I even like the uprooting idea in socialized French viticulture. Imagine no cabernet sourced from San Joaquin county. The Europeans are used to governmental oversight of a much more invasive kind than US growers and vintners. I would expect the Aussies to be laughing on the sidelines in this discussion, as they begin to market some fine wines at pricepoints well beneath both US and European competitors. Spain, though a small producer, has a lot of advantages. Italy, at this stage, who knows…I expect them to have a sip of wine before the debate, and let the French do as only the French would do.

  2. Steven Tolliver - July 26, 2006

    Your comment that Spain is in a block of countries opposed to the proposed EU wine reforms is not entirely accurate. The reference article in your post indicated that Spain would be “likely” to join with France in objecting to the reforms.
    The Spanish Wine Federation, a leading wine producers’ organization, has indicated that they are generally in favor of reform, but are opposed to ripping up vines and preventing vineyard renovation until 2013.

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