Sunday, April 30, 2006

Chips in wine

L'Amerloque has a lovely little essay on the French wine industry potentially lowering standards in order to keep up with the global wine market (California, Australia, Chile, South Africa, etc.). The story revolves around the particularly French notion of terroir. These are the little things that make global markets so unappealing for so many.
Devised and refined over decades and decades, the French concept of the terroir is the basis for classifying and ranking wines. Terroir refers to the combination of natural factors associated with a particular vineyard: soil, underlying rock, altitude, terrain, orientation toward the sun, microclimate … there are many parameters. Each French vineyard is unique and the system is complex, with its numerous and somewhat arcane appellations. The consumer must be educated, which takes time, effort and money: it is not a trivial task.

Winemakers in the "New World" countries usually label their wines by the grapes used to make them -- such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir -- and often add a description of the wines' qualities. Terroir counts for nothing.

Manufacturing processes are quite different, too. French wines ("Great wines are made in the vineyard", the saying goes) are aged in expensive oaken barrels, while the simple addition of wood chips to enhance taste is fully permitted in New World wines. Needless to say, it costs far less to drop a few bags or bundles of oak chips into a stainless steel vat than it does to make wine carefully in the traditional barrel. As a matter of fact, with the former method, the taste can be programmed. Little education of the consumer is required.

7 comments:

MT said...

Finally an end to the French rein of terroir.

MT said...

i.e. "reign"

helmut said...

I kind of like "rein." As in pulling other wine countries around by the nostrils.

roxtar said...

Looks like French wines stand at the intersection of "We've always done it this way" and "Not invented here."

That's a pretty dangerous corner....

MT said...

Napa sent them an airlift of root stock awhile back, so it's all been for show for awhile.

helmut said...

Chile also sent back stock several years back. But most of the grapes - whether in Chile or California - came from France in the first place. Regardless, the point is that the latter winemakers emphasize the grape, while French vintners emphasize the land, including the grapes, the soil, the local flora, etc. Myth or not, that's the notion of terroir that's missing from Californian wines. I honestly don't think it's myth, however. At least not with some of the great French wines.

It's not even "we've always done it this way." That may actually be true, but the important thing is terroir, oak barrels, a natural process, etc. Not aluminum barrels and wood chips and other flavor additives.

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