First PublishedCosta News Group April 2013



I don’t suppose that Arnold Wesker could have known how prophetic the eponymous title above would turn out to be when he wrote his acclaimed play in 1962. Essentially a depressing study of the class system of the time, Wesker’s play, Chips With Everything’, employs National Conscription to make his point that class barriers cannot be broken down, no matter what.


Also, as a leading member of a group of young British playwrights of his time, dubbed The Angry Young Men’, Wesker would no doubt have used a typewriter to record his words. The PC world was a generation away and yet it is just as true today, as it was in his drama, to say that there are chips with everything. I’m using one(?) now as I write on my laptop!


However this is neither the Literature nor the Arts Column, or the Technology column for that matter. It’s not the Food Column either, though that’s closer! No, this is the Wine Column and I’m talking Oak Chips, not the above! And asking, are there chips with everything in wine making?


Several years ago Cork Talk had as its headline, ‘Planks in Tanks’, which revealed to a mostly incredulous readership of the time that there were winemakers in Australia who were suspending oak planks in their stainless steel fermentation tanks in an effort to impart some oak flavour to their wine, at a fraction of the cost of using oak barrels.


A number of readers wrote to me, some deploring this action and generally denigrating all things Australian, which I thought a touch harsh, except of course when applied to their cricket and rugby teams! Some were in favour, pointing out that in this way at least Australian wine could have all the flavours of an oaked wine and yet still be within most people’s wine buying budget.


I recall that the majority, though if it were in politics it would have resulted in a hung parliament, were against the practise – the word ‘cheating’ was prevalent. Well, if you are one firmly entrenched in the group which is wholly against the idea, you may wish to look away right now – I don’t want to be responsible for reader apoplexy!


The fact is that while many of us have, for years now, been enjoying wine, particularly red wine, from Chile, Australia, Argentina and the USA which have nuances of oak within their flavour and aroma profiles, these have been imparted by various derivatives of oak trees, and not oak barrels!


But wait a minute, avert your eyes again – it gets worse. Come closer to home, to our new home, Spain, and yes it’s here too! Most of us are non the wiser, until now. And, it’s available here, as it is elsewhere, in various different forms.


A ‘touch of oak’ can mean: sawdust in huge ‘tea-bags’ during fermentation; or oak chips ((dados de roble) during fermentation; or planks suspended in vessels holding fermented wine; or small sections of oak planks inserted into old barrels which are really ready for retirement but have new life injected into them in this way!


Now there are those who argue, quite correctly, up to a point, that whilst such practices may indeed add an oak ‘presence’ in the aromas and flavours of the wine it cannot, of course, contribute to the ageing process, so important with quality wines. A process in which oak plays a leading role. Well, sorry, but think again.


The guys in white coats are nothing if not up to a challenge! There are now various methods and gadgets utilised which inject oxygen in and around the oak chips etc which has the effect of, paradoxically, speeding up ageing! The resulting wine will, to all intents and purposes, taste like an venerable, aged, oaked wine.


Scandalous cheating! Copying, here in Spain, the crude attempt to pull Australian wool over our eyes! Typical, it’s just not cricket! Well, maybe but, let’s look into it more closely before forming an opinion.


I sent e-mails and tweets to various contacts, wine: makers, journalists, writers, bloggers, merchants etc asking their opinions re the use of oak in this way, and particularly pertinently, about their understanding of how widespread the practise is here in Spain.


The results of this survey have made fascinating reading (and listening, as some, rather covertly, preferred not to commit to using the written word!). This, I think sums it up – the employment of, using a generic term, Oak Chips (as used from here on in), in Spain is controversial!


There are some bodegas who have said that they use/have used them and will continue to do so. Some have said that whilst they did, they don’t now, nor do they intend to in the future. There are also those who categorically deny their use, pouring abuse on the practise and scorn on those who do. There have also been those who do not use them but do not criticise those who do. And there are some who doubt that they are used at all! Another hung parliament!


It is legally permitted in all wine making areas of Spain, bar one – Rioja, whose Consejo Regulador (ruling council), after much discussion, decided to shun Oak Chips totally. A genuine attempt to uphold the integrity of Spain’s most famous wine producing area, or a rather canny publicity opportunity? You decide!


If using Oak Chips in the rest of Spain it is not permitted, however, to use the words ‘fermentado’, ‘envejecido’ or ‘criado’ en barrica (respectively: fermented, aged, kept in barrel) on labels of wine that have used this method. My contacts also tell me that it is forbidden to use wording that suggests the above.


So we can all rest easy in our beds knowing that all is transparent. Just like we can when listening to politicians, bankers etc!


Earlier in this article I deliberately used the word ´worse’ – in a deliberate attempt to confuse, by apparently nailing my colours to the flag. Like most of the wine writers/journalists/bloggers from whom I received replies, I do not consider the use of Oak Chips as a bad thing, as long as we are not being duped and provided the ‘oaking’ is judicially handled.


Let’s consider the practicalities. One producer, a winemaker himself, was adamant that the practise is widespread in Spain, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by those who profess to abhor the practise! He uses them and is happy to admit it.


He stands by his belief that it is an economic impossibility to make a 3-4€ wine aged in oak barricas and still make, even a minute profit. I can see where he is coming from. An oak barrel will weigh about 80 kilos; one needs just 500 grams of oak chips to impart the equivalent amount of flavour and aromas! (Think also of the difference in carbon footprint!). An oak barrel can cost anything from 450€ – 1,000€ and above, whilst oak chips are an absolute fraction of this figure!


Finally to those who deny that the practise exists in Spain – I have procured a brochure (just call me Sherlock!), part of which you can see here, from a French Company, but translated into Spanish, offering all manner of Oak Chips, with recipe-like instructions on their use, and including the differing grades of toasting etc! Proof positive, yes; damning evidence, no.


It happens – get over it!


Perhaps we all need to, rather neatly, considering the words used, ‘cambiar de chip’ (whose translation is to change our mindset!).


Contact Colin: and through as well as Twitter – @colinonwine

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