Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: French Put The Wood To Wine

The sagging French wine industry often tries to put a good face on its future despite increased global competition and less than stellar sales.

That now will be a little more difficult to accept since the French government plans to allow vintners to flavor their wine with wood shavings, a technique French winemakers have derided as the work of lesser mortals.

Adding wood chips to wine to increase oak flavor has long been practiced by some winemakers in the U.S., Australia and South America. The idea is to avoid the cost and time involved in aging wines in oak barrels.

"The use of wood shavings is already authorized by the European Community and will soon be entered into national regulation," France’s Agriculture Ministry said. Officials called it an effort to "open up the range of authorized winemaking practices."

Wine purists in France predictably objected to the move, although many in the industry were all in favor of it.

France’s National Appellations Institute (INAO) has proposed a law to allow the nation’s Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) regions to ban or limit the use of oak wood chips in at least some wines.

Its logic to ban use of chips across more than 460 AOC regions is concern the practice may damage their quality image. It proposed the move even before the European Union has had a chance to publish new wine rules allowing wood chips to be used.

The INAO position, like the controversial practice that spawned it, was not met with universal support.

"INAO no longer knows what it is doing. It has been completely wrong-footed by European Commission plans to reform the wine sector," Jean Clavel, head of the Coteaux Languedoc AOC region, told

"Using oak chips in some wines can add a little complexity, and helps them to respond to international demand from consumers who are used to woody aromas in their wines."

Elsewhere on the global wine scene, Italy is saying goodbye to tokai.

Winemakers in the northern Italian region of Friuli have been making Tocai (or Tokai) wine for centuries. Now, says the European Union, they can keep on doing so but they have to call it by a new name: Friulanio.

Italy and Hungary have been feuding over the name for 50 years or more, with Hungarians claiming only white wine made in the Tokaj region of Hungary could legitimately lay claim to the name.

For some time, a lower court decision decided that both Italian and Hungarian producers could market Tocai, a ruling later upheld by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. However, as part of the agreements for Hungary’s accession to the EU in 2004, Hungary was given exclusive rights to the Tokai label from the end of March 2007.

With that deadline looming, winemakers in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy appealed to the European Court to overturn it. The court, however, ruled that Italian Tocai "does not qualify as a geographical indication"because "it has no special quality, reputation or characteristic that is attributable to its geographic origin."

Gianola Nonino, whose family has been making wine at Udine in Friuli for generations, called the decision "appalling."

"They have stolen a part of our history," she told the Times of London, adding that the new name, Friulano, is "terrible" since it is simply an adjective describing anything that comes from Friuli.

Curiously, the tokai wines of the two countries are different. Italian Tocai is an aromatic dry white made entirely from the Tocai grape (known in France as Sauvignon Vert). Hungarian Tokai or Tokaji is a sweet dessert wine made using Furmint and Hareslvelu grapes.


(c)2006 Hearst Newspapers