French wood chip debate takes new turn

Barely six months ago, I reported under the headline "Worried French put wood in wine, not vice versa" that "The sagging French wine industry often tries to put a good face on its situation 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 at the time in a formal statement, 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.

Now, France's National Appellations Institute (INAO) has proposed a law to allow the nation's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (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 BeverageDaily.com. “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.”

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Chirac's City Hall collection tops $1 million

The much-anticipated auction of a wine collection created for Paris's City Hall when Jacques Chirac was mayor has brought in $1.2 million, 75 percent higher than pre-event estimates. (Click here for a video report on the event.)

The catalyst was a bidding war that developed between British and Chinese merchants. Stephen Williams, managing director of London's Antique Wine Co., spent 10,000 euros (US$12,561.83) for the most expensive labels in the catalog, two bottles of 1986 Romanee Conti with a value estimated before the sale of 1,500 euros (US$1,884).

Chirac, who went on to become president of France, had acquired nearly 5,000 bottles of such rare labels as Petrus and Margaux. Bertrand Delanoe, the current Socialist mayor, ordered the dispersal of the collection through the Oct. 20-21 auction.

"This was about fetishism,'' Claude Maratier told the Bloomberg News Service. "The two wine merchants saw great potential in buying Paris city wines, in buying Chirac's wines. It is a teaser for their clients.''

Maratier is the independent expert on the sale organized by Paris auction house SVV Giafferi, which reported final figures today.

Bidders ranged from an unidentified West African billionaire represented by his trader to an anonymous wine merchant calling in bids from Monaco. Proceeds from the auction will go to the city treasury for general use.

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IWSC's best of the best

A veritable downpour of medals showered on entries in the 2006 International Wine & Spirit Competition held in Australia.

The IWSC reported a record 6,000 entries in the competition which also saw the number of participating countries rising to 73 this year.

Here are some the best-in-class winners among the wines. Click here for a list of all medal winners in all classes.


• Alsace Grand Cru AC - Riesling: Cave de Turckheim Riesling Grand Cru Brand 2002, Cave de Turckheim.

• Botrytis Affected Wine - Sémillon - Australia:
De Bortoli Noble One 2004, De Bortoli Wines Pty Ltd.

• Botrytis Affected Wine - Western Cape: Nederburg Noble Late Harvest 2005, Distell.

• Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine - Australia - NV: Arras Bottle Fermented 2000, Hardy Wine Co.

• Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine - Traditional Blends - England: Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 1998, Nyetimber Vineyard.

• Chablis Grand Cru AC: Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Reserve de L'Obedience 2003, Domaine laroche SA.


• Amarone della Valpolicella DOC - Veneto - 2000: Amarone Classico Della Valpolicella DOC Monteci 2000, Societa Agricola Monteci S.S.

• Amarone della Valpolicella DOC - Veneto - 2001:
Il Bosco Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC 2001, Gerardo Cesari SPA.

• Amarone della Valpolicella DOC - Veneto - 2003: Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC Classico 2003, Cantine Salvalai Srl.

• Blended Red Wine - Cabernet Sauvignon Dominated - Chile - 2001: Carmen Winemaker's Reserve Red 2001, Vina Carmen.

• Blended Red Wine - Cabernet Sauvignon Dominated - Stellenbosch - 2001: Meerlust Rubicon 2001, Meerlust.

• Blended Red Wine - Cabernet Sauvignon Dominated - Stellenbosch - 2003: Vergelegen Estate Red 2003, Vergelegen Wines.

• Blendhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.bold.gifed Red Wine - Merlot Dominated - Regions of South Africa:
Lanzerac Classic 2002, Lanzerac Estate.

• Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine - Traditional Blends - England: Denbies Greenfields 2003, Denbies Wine Estate.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Coonawara - 2001: Parker Terra Rossa First Growth 2001, Parker Coonawara.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Coonawara - 2003: Nugan Estate Alcira Vineyard Coonawara Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Nugan Estate.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Maipo Valley 2004: Valdivieso Cabernet Sauvignon Vineya 2004, Vina valvedieso.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Mendoza - 2003:
Trapiche Medalla 2003, Trapiche.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Rapel Valley: Vina Misiones de Rengo SA Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Vina Misiones de Rengo SA.

• Cabernet Sauvignon - Stellenbosch - 2003:
Saxenburg Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Saxenburg.

• Cabernet Sauvignon Blend - Napa:
Oakville Ranch Robert's Blend 2001, Oakville Ranch Vineyards.

• Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot - McLaren Vale:
Geoff Merrill Pimpala Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2000, Geoff Merrill Wines.

• Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot - Stellenbosch: Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Laureat 2004, Distell.

• Carmenere - Colchagua Valley - 2004: Arboleda Carmenere 2004, Vina Arboleda.

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An insider's look at a wine dinner

Photo by William M. Dowd

They come in my mail in bunches, announcements of and invitations to one wine dinner or another.

Some extol the virtues of various domestic and foreign wines. Others emphasize the food. Whatever the offer, all are trying to get a piece of a very old activity that suddenly has become the hottest thing in the restaurant world, especially since members of the increasingly competitive wine industry try for a greater share of business.

What goes on inside a wine dinner?

Each has its subtleties and differences, but there's a general pattern to them. Don't be put off by the "insider-speak" some attendees use to inflate their egos. It's really just a matter of putting together food and drink that tastes good.

A good example of the genre took place at the venerable Jack's Oyster House in Albany, New York's capital city. Jack's has been open for business every day since it opened its doors in 1912. The event paired the culinary skills of Dale Miller and the wine-making skills of David Lake.

Each man has earned top industry honors, so the opportunity to explore their efforts at the same event drew a sizable group to 42 State St. and a second-floor banquet room at the oldest restaurant in town.

Miller is one of fewer than five dozen professionals in the entire United States who hold the Certified Master Chef designation, a title conferred to only the occasional survivor of a rigorous multi-day practical examination at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Lake holds the Master of Wine designation, which The Times of London calls "Britain's most rigorous professional examination.'' He's one of 226 in the world, and the only one in North America.

On this particular evening, it was a truly eclectic group, a mixture of wine novices, wine lovers, at least one competition judge, several wine sales execs and the just plain curious.

As with virtually all such events, what you find is an ad hoc partnership between the host restaurant and a winemaker, distributor or trade organization. On this evening, Canandaigua Wine Co. was featuring its Columbia Winery labels from Washington state, although the world's largest distributor obviously handles a wide range of brands.

The wine provider usually also supplies the host for the evening. The host handles the greetings, gives a brief background talk on the geography and climate of the area in which the featured wines are produced, and introduces a different wine with each course.

Ray Fox was the host, a genial, well-informed fellow who stays away from the intricate wine-snob jargon that is so off-putting to so many people, particularly those just getting into wine.

Prices vary, but generally are in the $45 to $75 per person range. The Jack's event was $65, which covered the meal, wines, tax and gratuity.

Miller tends to shine at special events, and this evening was no exception.

He opened with a pair of seafood appetizers.

A large, carmelized diver scallop was served with a clever "tartare'' of ruby grapefruit, avocado and roasted pepper. Citrus juices are wonderful with scallops, with a citrus marinade sometimes substituting for cooking. Here, the pan searing and the citrus inclusion were a perfect preparation device.

It was paired with a 1999 Columbia Yakima Valley pinot gris, with hints of lemon and grapefruit that worked beautifully with the scallop as well as its avocado garnish that always cries out for acid.

A slice of wild Copper River salmon filet was crusted in hazelnuts, basil and pine nuts, served with a pasta pillow stuffed with shredded leek and a vin blanc sauce. A 1997 Wyckoff Chardonnay from Columbia was a buttery, full-bodied perfect companion.

After a strawberry sorbet palate cleanser, guests plunged into the main course, a pan-roasted tournedo of beef with what Miller calls "a hodgepodge'' of smoky bacon, diced tomato and thyme, drizzled with a merlot-based demi-glace.

The succulent beef was accompanied by a truffled puree of Yukon Gold potato and a succotash. The wine accompaniments were a 1997 Columbia Milestone Merlot that I found rather thin and slightly sour, and a bold 1998 Columbia Syrah that offered an aromatic bouquet, rich flavor and smooth aftertaste.

The feast ended with a light, delicious gateau, an almond-scented cake with fresh berries, an apricot glaze and a splash of white chocolate. A peach-scented Columbia ice wine was the crowning touch.

Miller made an appearance, to enthusiastic applause, after the dinner to field questions from the guests. While he said more such dinners, with perhaps a live cooking demonstration, are in the offing, he said no theme had been decided.

Considering the initial dinner here was titled "April in Paris," and this one was called "North by Northwest," an appropriate movie title for any future event might be "La Dolce Vita."

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Italy says 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 Haréslvelü grapes.

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Competition booming Down Under

The annual Air New Zealand Wine Awards are getting to be such a major event, the competition for medals is ramping up.

Entries for this year's event have topped 1,700, an increase of about 10% over last year and an all-time high.

Wine varietals leading this year's wine awards are Chardonnay with 325 entries, Sauvignon Blanc with 318 and Pinot Noir with 236 entries. This year Viognier also gets its own class, with 22 entries received this year. This specialty white wine is growing in production due to consumer demand.

Marlborough wines once again topped entries with 680 wines all up, almost 40 per cent of the total entries, followed by Hawke's Bay with 412, Nelson with 126 entries and Gisborne with 125 entries.

New Zealand Winegrowers Chief Executive Philip Gregan said, "As we reach 20 years of Air New Zealand sponsorship, the awards are stepping out with a new look logo, medals and for the first time on-bottle recognition for trophy winning wines with a new sticker. The awards are as eagerly followed by consumers as the industry and this year we are launching a new interactive Web site and advertising campaign.

The wines will be judged over three days, Oct. 30-Nov. 1, in North Shore City. All wines are critiqued for either a bronze, silver or gold medal. Gold medal wines are then re-tasted to find the possible 19 Air New Zealand Wine Awards trophy winners, and final results will be announced on Nov. 11.

The overall medal results will be available here or here.

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