The forests of France currently being cut down for barrels are 200 years old, and are being depleted at four times the necessary rate because so many winemakers have failed to examine sensible approaches to conservation. If you about 25% of the high quality wood outside the heart and inside the cambium can be split and shapen into a stave which ends up in a piece of fine furniture that seals properly 75% thus gets simply thrown away because chips have a lousy image. Pretty stupid.
Bad wood makes bad wine, be it made into barrels or chips. There’s plenty of both on the market. Chips aren’t worse than barrels. It turns out they’re actually inherently better.
A complete wine has no use for wood extractives. J. L. Chave (he of the 100 point Parker scores) once imparted to me that neither he nor his father ever purchased a new barrel. Yet he acknowledged the necessity of time on old barrels for his miraculous syrah-based St. Joseph wines in order to breathe away off aromas, oxygenate tannins, catalyze settling and reincorporate yeast lees.
Beyond this, barrels are used to correct deficiencies. Various oak extractables can assist color extraction, supplement tannin structure, frame or sweeten mouthfeel, and impart vanilla, spice, toast, toffee or coffee aromas. Great coopers are intrinsic to great Burgundies because pinot noir is quite deficient in many areas and the wines need these aids..
New barrels or chips are worthless without proper curing and toasting. Barrels in addition must be toasted during their construction to a consistent mixture of levels of toast, a job few coopers master. Mostly it’s their job to build a container, and its flavor characteristics are secondary. The result is a great art, but not very predictable in flavor.
I was reformed in 1997 by Patrick Ducournau’s common sense arguments which convinced me to get my extractives from the far more predictable source of chips. Their cheaper price is totally incidental. New barrels – an $800 piece of furniture which holds liquid without a nail in it and therefore wastes 75% of perfectly good wood in its manufacture – is an idiotic source of oak extractives.
I am one of very few winemakers who will level with you about this: I haven’t purchased a new barrel in a decade, even for my $100 Cabernet, because barrels are not a reliable source of these extractives. Forget price. I am trying to make the best wines, and new barrels are simply too unpredictable.
Viva the chip!