France's government said Wednesday it will soon allow vintners to flavor their wine with wood shavings — a moneysaving shortcut to help face off tough international competition, and a reform that immediately angered purists.
It was a sharp break in tradition: Flavoring wine with wood chips was, until recently, a technique that France's vintners were proud to have nothing to do with. But many vineyard owners, whose fortunes have flagged in recent years, now want access to the same techniques as their competitors.
Wood chips can be added to wines to give them an oak flavor without using expensive wooden barrels. Such cost-cutting tactics are already common across the rest of the winemaking world, including Australia and the Americas.
"The use of wood shavings is already authorized by the European Community and will soon be entered into national regulation," the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement after a meeting with representatives of winemaking regions.
The goal is to "open up the range of authorized winemaking practices," the statement said.
"It is a remarkable and very realistic advance — it's practically miraculous," said Roland Feredj, director of a Bordeaux wine council known by the initials CIVB. "In general, France always wants to give lessons to the rest of the world, and in winemaking we are realizing that the Australians and the Americans also have things to teach us about wine regulations."
The government announced a 90 million euro ($108 million) plan last week to help the French wine industry, which is suffering from overproduction, dropping consumption in France and competition abroad. Of that, 12 million euros ($14.4 million) will go toward boosting exports, Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said Wednesday in parliament. The money will pay for studies and panels, as well as a new logo to promote French wines.
"We have to make wine for consumers, not wine that producers dream of," Bernard Pomel, the author of a wine report commissioned by the ministry, told Le Figaro newspaper.
Beyond allowing the use of wood shavings, the government also will permit broader use of techniques to lower wines' alcohol content, the ministry statement said.
Nicolas Ronceray, who works at a small wine bar in Paris, believes the reform will chip away at the very strengths of French wines: their timeless appeal despite fads, and their diversity.
"In the end, we are going to make wines like we make food at McDonald's," said Ronceray, whose bar specializes in wines from small, traditional vineyards.
"When you put wood shavings in wine ... you can no longer speak about 'aroma,' you must speak about 'odor,' like you would for a chemical product," he said. "For me this is the beginning of the end."