With Or Without Chips?

15 Dec 2006

I am not trying to pose as a wine neophyte, nor am I able to, but at this time of legislative decrees and press releases, I would like to know what an ordinary discerning consumer might be thinking.

Let us quickly recap. In October the European Union issued a regulation (1507/2006) on the ‘use of pieces of oak wood in winemaking and the designation and presentation of wine so treated’. Under the heading ‘Purity’, it is stipulated that ‘The pieces of oak wood may not release any substances in concentrations which may be harmful to health’. The pieces of wood have been warned-when they come into contact with alcohol they may only release substances beneficial for the producer’s pocket (who saves money by not having to buy oak casks and wait a long time for the wine to age inside them).

A few weeks ago the Italian Ministry for Agricultural Policies issued a related Decree Law banning the use of wood chips for DOC and DOCG wines.

‘Good’, says our discerning consumer, ‘DOC and DOCG wines are closely linked to a local area, they shouldn’t be hit by standardizing practices’.
‘Sure’, I reply. ‘But this benefit only affects a small proportion of wine. 70% of Italian production is in fact Regional Geographical Indication’.

‘OK’, he says, ‘that means RGI wines are not quality wines and can therefore be excluded from the ‘restrictive’ ministerial decree’.

Meanwhile, the supporters of what they call ‘freedom of choice’ in production methods remind us that the use of wood chips has been a widespread practice for years, that the world is changing rapidly and you have to adapt or miss market opportunities. But my consumer starts to get worried: ‘Well, how can I know what wine I am drinking, I don’t want to mess around-just tell me whether there are chips or no chips’.

But there is an unmentioned elephant in the room when it comes to this Ministerial Decree. The label is not required to specify whether wood chips have been used or not.

‘This means’, says my hypothetical friend, ‘that if there is no indication whether the wine has been aged in casks, then chips have been used’. ‘No’, I reply, ‘it might have just been aged in steel containers’. He persists: ‘So can’t I tell from the price? If it tastes of oak but is cheaper than wine aged in the barrel, it will be made using chips’. ‘Well’, I observe, ‘that might only be true if the producer has been honest and reflects his lower production costs in his final selling price’.

My friend says that wine is made using patience and knowledge and if you want to make it differently you have to at least say what you have done. He says that we ‘experts’ have for years been hammering the message of local area and terroir but, except for spumante wines, have ignored the question of production methods. My friend is very annoyed and he has reason to be. I would like producers and winemakers to be annoyed too but all I can hear at the moment is a deafening silence. Still, we should be positive, we haven’t been battling for years since the methanol scandals to meekly give up now.

First printed in La Stampa on November 27, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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