Friday, April 27, 2007

A Chip Off the Old Barrel

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about barrels lately – varying amounts of toast, using radar to plot flavor profiles, and technical specs from various cooperages. Okay, so it’s part of my WSET training, but it also reinforces some interesting – or more accurately startling – information.

For example, the oaked Chardonnay you have in your hand may actually have never seen the inside of a cask. That Napa Cabernet Sauvignon for 60 bucks? Quite possibly nada
in the barrel department but high in the oak chips or staves.

So here’s how it works. To fake the flavour, there’s a selection of oak chips (now does the image at the right really make you want to run out and buy a wine that's been sitting on these - go on, be honest), oak powder, oak inner staves, or something called oak extract – chips, dust powder, (shown left) from one supplier. And let’s not forget Quertain Effervescent Tablets and Liquid Oak Tannin.

Sound like a drugstore rather than a winery? Well how about this? The April 2007 issue of Wines and Vines Magazine is all about oak alternatives. One advertisement boldly asks, “Is it barrels or alternatives? Only the winemaker will know for sure.”

So do you really know how the oak flavor got into your wine? Can you tell if the oak is from barrels or a bag of chips?

Wines and Vines did a taste test of wines made using alternatives – mostly barrel staves – and found that “only the most highly trained palates will be able to taste the difference between barrel only and oak adjuncts.”

Funny thing, though, the Italians have banned oak chips and the French are just waiting for legislation to pass banning them – this is contrary to new EU laws that do allow use of chips and other oak adjuncts. Do they know something we don’t?

My research into barrels may never be useful in a practical sense. After all, Robert Parker gave a Napa Cab Franc (Larkin 2004) made with staves 92 points and called it one of the finest Napa Cab Francs made. Perhaps the question is not so much who is using Liquid Oak or what they charge for it. Perhaps it’s more about whether there is a difference between industrial wines and artisan wines. If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?

Let me draw a comparison. Think about buying a bag of vanilla cookies from a company that spits out millions per day off an assembly line. They’re a bit hard and dry, but you know it’s a vanilla cookie. True the fake vanilla leaves a residual, slightly off taste in your mouth, but hey the bag was cheap – like a $10 vintage of almost any wine.

Now think about the little mom and pop bakery just down the street. You bite into one of their softy, gooey, delicacies hot off a baking sheet. I don’t need to describe the fragrance, the texture, and the richness of the genuine vanilla. Do you care this single cookie cost almost the same as the bag of its mass produced distant cousins? Doubtful.

There’s definitely a place for assembly line products – cars, computers, video games. Wine just isn’t one of them.

Barrel photos courtesy of Haut Brion

1 comment:

Marcus said...

Hi there Susan and Frank,

Interesting... I was looking into this topic myself because I read that this year French wines of official appellations were banned from using oak chips (I'm doing an online tasting for French wines from the Midi next month). Then I heard that while the ban is a done deal it doesn't go into effect until later on. Didn't know about the EU at all though.

Disentangling wine regulatory information is always a struggle, isn't it?