What’s The Agenda?

In preparation for a British "expose" of sorts on winemaking and winemaking additives, the Telegraph in the UK has run a story highlighting the rather unauthentic ingredients that sometimes find their way into wines. From the look of the story in the Telegraph, the television show probably wasn’t a fawning appraisal of the world of wine making. But one thing stuck out in reading the story:

"Many cheaper wines have oak chips added to give the impression that they have
  been aged in a traditional barrel"

It has to be noted that this little tidbit is offered as though it’s a bad thing, not a good thing.

Barrels are better than chips, is the suggestion here. And from a perspective of quality, there may in fact be a case to be made for wines aged in oak barrels ending up being better wines that have oak tossed into the liquid…rather than the liquid being tossed into the oak.

But of course oak doesn’t grow on grape vines. Oak Barrels do not rise up out of the ground and eventually surround the vines and comfort the grape bunches it its protective surroundings. Oak barrels are made from oak trees that are cut down, sliced, shaved, banded together, charred and topped. While the barrel is clearly a traditional vessel for the transportation and storage of wine, it is hardly "natural".

In fact, I don’t see how the use of oak chips is in any substantial way different than using barrels if we look at it from a purely philosophical perspective. Both are used to alter the taste and texture of the wine.

I’ll grant that barrels are somewhat more romantic. They conjure images of cellars piled high with wine stained vessels holding the next great vintage. Oak chips conjure of images of table saws and dust.

And so this leads me to my point: It strikes me that any television show, any article, and any general claim that the use of oak chips is somehow worse than the use of barrels or some sort of nefarious trick by winemakers probably has some sort of an agenda behind it or an author that hasn’t thought things through. I’m betting its the former.

25 Responses

  1. ryan - September 16, 2008

    Chips, eh, I’m more worried when they start throwing in Stainless steel flakes! 🙂

  2. Arthur - September 16, 2008

    Don’t forget two things: 1) barrels are expensive, and 2) barrels are needed to “soften” a wine.
    If you are making wine in quantities that would fill the external fuel tank of the space shuttle, oak chips are not only more affordable but allow for more control of the oak character in the finished wine.
    Also, barrels serve to age the wine by micro-oxygenating it. The wood allows air into the wine. The oxygen in the air softens and mellows the wine allowing it to take on a better texture and flavor characteristic. This takes a considerable amount of time and is most effective when applied to wines that are made to age and cellar before consumption (ie wines that are NOT ready to drink for 10 years after crush). With the majority of wines made from varieties which traditionally required cellaring now being made to be consumed within two to three years of the vine as opposed to a decade (!!!!), barrels are not a necessary part of the equation. The wine are already soft (and plump and flabby and structureless) and all that you would want from oak at that point is just the flavor components. Barrels have become a vestige, a token to satisfy the consumer’s preconceptions of “wine”.
    So if the consumer doesn’t want to cellar their wine and wait for it to evolve (or if they don’t like tannins and complexity), they have no grounds for being disappointed that their beverage was fermented and aged in a giant stainless steel tank with oak staves or chips added for flavoring.

  3. Arthur - September 16, 2008

    One more:
    How many of the same consumers would be horrified to learn that their beloved fruit bomb has been made with oak “flour” which is effective at removing pyrazines?

  4. Jeff Hogg - September 16, 2008

    Now THAT would be a wine with a razor sharp finish! (cue cheesy comedic drum noise)

  5. Dale Cruse - September 16, 2008

    NEW! From Pringles! Their latest EXTREME flavor: Oak Chips! Who doesn’t enjoy some wood in their mouth?!

  6. Sasha - September 16, 2008

    I hate to be the environmental hippie here and chime in, but doesn’t the practice of using oak chips also mean that we cut down less trees? I wish I had some concrete numbers on the annual de-forestation with the aim of barrel making, and I am sure that compared to other industries it is insignificant. But it should be a consideration, a part of the argument. Especially for the wines made for consumption within the first few years – not meant for aging. Just like alternative wine packaging – economic, practical, and ethical augments should be in play.

  7. Phyll - September 16, 2008

    How did the subject of “traditional” shift to become an argument of what is “natural”, Tom? I may be wrong, but I see this whole issue as akin to whether or not you’d like to drink an artificially-carbonated white wine coming from Champagne. The fizz would give the impression of having been bottle fermented, no?

  8. Arthur - September 16, 2008

    There *are* sparkling wines made by carbonating still wines the way soft drinks are carbonated. The difference is obvious visually and in the mouth. The difference in wines made in oak barrels vs oak chips can be a lot less glaring but in either case, what the consumer does not know does not hurt the producer.

  9. Jeff - September 16, 2008

    The press in this country tend to exagerate the bad elements of all thigns around us. This instance was no exception. You make good points regarding the source of the oak “flavour”. Does it really matter where it comes from. I like you, think not. But what becomes of it once used. Sold to B&Q perhaps for barbeque flavourings.

  10. Virginia winemaker - September 16, 2008

    This is old news. He’s really grasping at anything to further the “natural wine” movement. Perfect example of the arm-chair quarterback type in the wine world. If the impression of oak barrel works, then what’s the point of raising the issue?

  11. Morton Leslie - September 16, 2008

    I read the Telegraph story yesterday and again today, but I still don’t know what’s the point of the piece. Champagne is a rip off? Wine is a rip off? Regulation is needed? It just seemed to be a mishmash of innuendo. He was obviously just listing “Did you know?” items about wine without understanding what he was saying.
    Regarding barrels vs. chips. If the subject is food safety, then probably there is little difference between barrels and chips. But if we are talking about wine quality there are usually distinct differences. But theoretically, they could be identical.
    With barrels you just pop your wine in $1000 Taransaud barrels, rack the wines quarterly and you’ll get at least 90 points from Parker.
    To try to do the same with chips is a lot tougher, but technically possible. You have get the same quality wood, duplicate the toast, get the dosage correct so you extract the same amount, and maybe stage the additions so the rate of extraction is similar. Oh, and don’t forget to innoculate for that Brett you’ll need to seal the deal with Bob. (Best you do that early rather than late in the game.)

  12. Dylan - September 16, 2008

    I think it is a matter of romance.
    It’s like the difference between eating grandma’s cookie recipe made from scratch or buying a brand called “Grandma’s Cookie Recipe” which taste identical and share the same ingredients (a rare example, I know).
    What’s more enticing: the traditional recipe or store bought?

  13. Virginia winemaker - September 16, 2008

    To those who prefer the romance, you don’t think this phenomenon is exclusive to wine do you? What is more egregious, a $6.00 wine made with oak chips instead of barrels or a $1,200 Armani suit made in China (with buttons and a “Made in Italy” tag attached in Italy)?

  14. 1WineDude - September 16, 2008

    You don’t know the half of it!
    I’ve heard that wine also has:
    – Sulfites (which cause extreme allergic reactions in < 1% of the population) - Fish parts used to fine it (Ugh! GROSS!) - Alcohol (the drink of Satan) - Water (fatal in small quantities if inhaled directly into the lungs!) It must be BANNED I tell you!!

  15. jane - September 16, 2008

    This “oak chip” controversy is really long past its day. After years of attempting to get any high-end winemaker to admit to using any kind of barrel alternative—despite the indisputable evidence of an increasingly thriving industry of suppliers, most of them cooperages, a couple of years ago the editors at Wines & Vines (which is supported by both cooperages and “oak alt” suppliers) finally were able to identify some $20-plus wines made with barrel/tank inserts. We tasted these blind against wines of similar age/AVA and price points that were proudly “barrel aged.” I think at the time we must have had about 70 years of combined wine tasting among us. Guess what? We could NOT discern the difference among these wines, and rated some of the “barrel alternative” wines higher than their competitors.
    No question that oak, in some form, does contribute to what the current consumer prefers in some wines. How it gets there may not matter all that much. I kinda like a “steely Sauv Blanc” though; bring on the shavings!

  16. jane - September 16, 2008

    Oh, it’s just me again. This thread made me think of the TTB’s allergin labeling proposal, which I think started in 2006. Here’s the latest link, and I’m just asking, does anyone have any updates on this deal? http://www.ttb.gov/labeling/major_food_allergin_labeling.shtml
    I’d certainly like to know what’s going on with that.

  17. mark - September 16, 2008

    Well, congratulations Tom, et al. You finally have got me foaming at the mouth, and spitting all over my keyboard. Anyone who thinks oak chips and micro ox have any business being used on a wine that purports to be high quality, distinctive, and expressive of place, deserves the crap that’s currently being foisted upon them. Maybe only a winemaker can tell, and maybe only the winemaker responsible knows, but I, for one, want my red wine dry, balanced (NOT 15%+ ALCOHOL!), without a load of crap thrown in to make it darker or thicker or “better”, aged for years, not weeks, in an oak barrel, and I’m pretty sure I can tell when it’s not. And lately, I’ve had waay too many that clearly never spent a day in a barrel. And I am sick of the ALCOHOLIC, manufactured crap that so many of you find perfectly acceptable. Thank God I make it, it seems like that’s the only guarantee of an honest bottle of wine- if you made it yourself. Most of the wine around these days should be sold in aluminum cans- it’s not worthy of a glass bottle. Barrels- a “vestige” ? Talk to any winemakers lately? Think they use barrels because they’re traditional, and cool, and their customers are a bit nostalgic? They’re expensive, heavy, backbreaking to work with, inconvenient, the worst possible shape to stack, store, or move, hard to keep clean on the outside, impossible to thoroughly clean on the inside, bugs eat holes in them, they can harbor nasty microorganisms that make your wine taste like salad dressing, horse sweat and hamster cages, and they are absolutely essential for aging red wine of any real quality. (Yeah, I know about Beaujolais and the other exceptions). I feel like Charlton Heston in The Planet of the Apes. Damn you all!!!!

  18. KenPayton - September 16, 2008

    Oak chips are so passé. There is liquid currently on the market, a pure oak extract. Winemakers can order it in the usual toasting grades. Coloring agents are also available. Special texturizing substances designed to produce a fuller mouthfeel can be had. Change the pH, change the alc.
    Truth is the poor quality of the grapes and incompetent farming practices ultimately require fixes. Garbage in, garbage out.
    Lipstick on a pig.

  19. ryan - September 17, 2008

    Funny thing is I just talked with a winery who’s red wine a year ago received 90+ parker points. Sold out very quickly too, in the US. They only use chips. No barrels. True story

  20. Colin - September 17, 2008

    Considering I’m a subscriber to the Telegraph over here in the UK I’m surprised this article passed me by.
    What isn’t so surprising is the early mention in the article of Malcolm Gluck. He courts controversy but I don’t know if he falls into Tom’s description of “an author who hasn’t thought things through”.
    Given the standard of TV in the UK at present with so much of it being sensationlist, reality stuff I would take much of what was presented on Despatches (often a good program however)with a pinch of salt.

  21. 1WineDude - September 17, 2008

    For once, I agree with Ken.
    If you need to perform too much trickery in the winery, someone in the vineyard is probably not doing the right job.

  22. Arthur - September 17, 2008

    That your pannel could not tell the difference between a wine made IN oak as opposed to being made WITH oak is not a cut and dry validation of the latter being the sunbstitute for the former. It just says the two tasted indistinguishable.
    It does not take into account the style of wine being made.
    Barrels are most valuable for mellowing wines. If you make a wine so evolved that it does need the micro-xygenation a barrel brings to the proces, all you could be seeking from a barrel is extraction of oak flavors. In that scenario, alternatives will do the same thing.

  23. Arthur - September 17, 2008

    If you make a wine (and the majority of the market wants) that does not need years of ageing (barrel or bottle) why spend the $1K+ on a barrel? Chips are cheaper.
    The wines in question are what you abhor. They are exposed to oak for flavor and not mellowing.
    If there is no benefit to ageing a particular wine in barrel, then the barrel is an expensive vestige.
    That is what I meant by the use of the word.

  24. Virginia winemaker - September 17, 2008

    The use of “artificial” ingredients in wine production is widespread. In fact, I don’t know of any winery that doesn’t use them. That being the case, what is the benchmark for “traditional” winemaking today? It’s not high-end Napa or Bordeaux wines I can tell you for sure, they have the most to lose by being bested in color or viscosity by a “lesser” wine. To those of you not in the production end of the industry, I think you’d be surprised that the prized bottle in your collection was likely manipulated with a little cellar jive.

  25. Fredric Koeppel - September 18, 2008

    Ryan, you need to tell us what winery you spoke to that uses only oak chips and no barrels and scored 90 from Parker. Blogging is about transparency. True story.

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