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Chips with everywine?

Published:  18 January, 2007

Centuries may have passed since Guelf squared off against Ghibelline, the Bianchi' against the Neri', the Capulets against the Montagues. The elections are over, Prodi has sneaked past Berlusconi, the condemnations and recriminations of the past year or so are behind us, and yet Italians today are back in the midst of what they appear to like best: squabbling.

We are not referring to the football match-fixing scandals. Everyone agrees that was wrong, if only because the perpetrators got caught. No, this particular 'war of religion', as one wag described it, is about whether or not oak chips should be allowed in the making of wine.

The catalyst is an imminent ruling by the EU commission as to the acceptability or otherwise of certain winemaking tricks within the hallowed precincts of the 25. Certain parties in Italy have got wind that little bits of wood are going to be allowed to influence the smell of their vino, and they are making an almighty fuss about it. Leading the complainants is the Citta' del Vino, which groups the Italian towns linked with wine production, together with Legambiente, a left-leaning environmental pressure group. They have raised a petition appealing to the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Mariann Fischer Boel, and her Italian counterpart, Paolo de Castro, not to allow this barbaric procedure so dear to the hearts of uncouth New World producers. Many prominent names have been hauled on board, not just winemakers but journalists, scientists and academics as well. Nutritionist Giorgio Calabrese has declared that chips could have a deleterious effect on Italian livers and kidneys.

Giacomo Tachis, in his day maker of Sassicaia, Solaia, Tignanello and numerous other top wines, has said that 'you might as well make an infusion of wood and add it as flavouring to the wine'. For Professor Attilio Scienza of Milan University the matter of chips, or trucioli (pronounced troo-cho-lee), is part of a wider debate on wine additives in general. 'There is today a growing tendency to use substances which modify the characteristics of wine. Wood chips bring only an added sensation, a banal appendage, to wine, while barriques are containers which provoke an oxy-reductive reaction which gives it important characteristics. I hope,' he adds, 'that this oenological practice will be not be allowed in the making of DOC wines, and that where it is used, there will be a specific indication to that effect on the label.'

So, are we talking about forbidding chips only in DOC wines? Or in IGT wines as well? If that means only Vino da Tavola wines will be able to resort to chips, do we not court the possibility of a reflowering of the lowest denomination, as in the 1970s and 1980s? Or, might we be looking at the possibility of chips in all wines provided it is declared on the label? The purists are for a blanket ban, and one can understand why, given the potential for confusion.

However: 'Once again,' writes the director of the weekly wine journal Corriere Vinicolo, 'Italy has seized the occasion to flagellate itself, pursuing thus her mad, self-harming course towards the void. The world of wine seems to have gone mad. And all this because of a practice used by New Worlders for some time, a practice which has in no small way helped them to create and diffuse the so-called "international taste", drawing into the wine-drinking fold new consumers attracted by the hint of vanilla and thus bringing tangible success to American and Australian wines.'

Defending the barricades of those who favour chips are, predictably, the industrialists and volume producers who are less interested in defending tradition and principle than in selling wine - that is, in making wine that the public wants to drink at a price it wants to pay. One of their most influential spokesmen is ex-president of Italian oenologists and ex-head of Banfi Montalcino, Ezio Rivella, who ridicules the 'visceral and hysterical reactions of those, far removed from the reality of production, who would set Italy up as the defender of the barrique', a technology imported only about 30 years ago from France and which the purists themselves have widely blamed for distorting the character of certain Italian classics.

In any case, says Angelo Gaja, who can always be counted on to have an individual take on any situation, 'what is the point of authorising Vini da Tavola (or IGTs) to use chips (while forbidding them for DOCs) when there is no official method of analysis by which to distinguish a barriqued wine from one with chips?'

Good point. So, it's all or nothing? One thing's for sure: the wars of religion will rage on. For 30 years? One hundred? The Guelfs and Ghibellines, you will recall, were at it for centuries.

The industrialists and volume producers are less interested in defending tradition and principle than in making wine that the public wants to drink at a price they want to pay