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Bordeaux Châteaus Fined for Use of Wood Chips

Posted: November 29, 1999

In an ongoing debate over accepted winemaking practices in France, the Bordeaux court of appeals has fined four châteaus and a cooperage house more than $13,000 each for adulterating wines by adding wood chips for flavor. Several of the parties plan to contest the rulings, arguing that their experimental use of the procedure does not violate French wine law.

This is the first time that the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the commission that regulates France's appellation system, has taken Bordeaux châteaus to court over the use of wood chips. However, this practice of "boisage" has been an issue in other French wine regions in the past.

The five parties that were fined were the former director of Château Giscours, a well-known third-growth in Margaux; the parent company of Château Cap de Haut, a cru bourgeois in the Haut-Médoc; the technical director of Le Château des Bertins, the second label of Château Greysac, a cru bourgeois in the Haut-Médoc; Château Lacroix-Merlin in the Premieres Cttes de Bordeaux; and Demptos, the cooperage house that provided the wood. Cap de Haut, Greysac and Demptos are appealing. Lacroix-Merlin declined to comment on the case.

Adding wood chips to wines, a practice little discussed in the industry, is a cheap and harmless method of imparting oak flavors to wines, rather than using pricey oak barrels. Winemakers in places such as California, South Africa, Chile and Australia may use oak chips to keep prices down on their "fighting varietals," but the practice has not been permitted in Bordeaux or much of the European Union.

"We are against this because in the original decree for the AOCs [controlled appellations] that dates back to 1935, it stipulates that 'All enological practices must conform to the local practices that are faithful and constant,'" said Jacques Fanet, assistant director of the INAO. "In Bordeaux, this means putting wine in wood and not wood in wine."

Though the five cases are separate, they all have their roots in a fraud case at Château Giscours, which French authorities began investigating in 1996. The managing director of Giscours at the time, Jean-Michel Ferrandez, was charged with adulterating wines from the 1995 vintage. Ferrandez was found guilty of adding generic Haut-Médoc wine to the château's second label, Le Sirene de Giscours, and was fired. During the inquiry, the investigators discovered invoices from Demptos for wood chips, and the INAO took Ferrandez to court, resulting in the fine.

When the investigators went to Demptos, they found wood-chip invoices made out to the other châteaus. Those estates and the cooperage house say that they were working on experiments, not wines for sale. "It was the wish of several winegrowers to look at improving their product," said Jerome Frangois, president of Demptos. "At Demptos, we have been doing scientific research on oak for over 10 years. The trials at the châteaus involved pieces of wood from barrels that have been dismantled into planks of wood. We believe in regulations, and the châteaus had officially bought these wood chippings."

The châteaus argue that they should not be prosecuted because the INAO has never specified that such tests are not allowed. "Experiments do not infringe on local practices," said Pierre-Gilles Gromand, owner of Château Cap de Haut.

"The trials we carried out were in total collaboration with the Enological Institute of Bordeaux; it was all very clear," said Philippe Dambrine, owner of Château Greysac, which tested wood chips only on the 1995 vintage of its second wine, Le Château des Bertins.

Cap de Haut also undertook its two brief experiments on its 1994 vintage in conjunction with the Enological Institute of Bordeaux, according to Gromand. Both trials were stopped prematurely. "After a month, we tasted the wine and found it dry and bitter. I didn't want to take any risks, so I [racked] the wine and let it take its normal course," said Gromand, who also owns Château de Lamarque, which was not implicated. He added, "The irony of this whole affair is that I am totally against the usage of wood chips."

Such experiments are not unheard of in France. In fact, the French government allowed several dozen wineries in the Midi to test wood chips on the 1997 and '98 vintages under the supervision of the country's antifraud agency. Most of those wines, however, carried the simple Vins de Pays d'Oc classification and were not AOC wines.

"In Bordeaux it is all such a question of principle," said Frangois of Demptos. "Had this occurred in a lesser wine region, then there would not have been so much fuss made over it."

But INAO's lawyer, Jacques Cavalier, who represented the commission at the court hearing in Bordeaux, disagreed. "This type of experimentation is not listed in the European [Union] legislation and so it is not allowed," he said. "For the producers, their reasoning is such that it is a question of principle: Since it is not listed, they feel they are free to do as they wish."

"This is an attack led by the INAO to amplify media attention," concluded Dambrine of Greysac. "The INAO has never told producers that such tests were not part of the AOC philosophy. They want to create new laws by using the courts."

Back to Bordeaux Basics

Read our editors' opinions on the Giscours case:
Is Public Opinion On Bordeaux Turning?
All Right, So They're Faking It
Pulling The Veil

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