Wine connoisseurs around the world owe a great deal in quality assurance to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).Their labors directed at decoding the French oak tree genome are bearing a very practical fruit: fraud detection. A holistic sequencing and mapping of this genome allows scientists to identify poorer quality barrels that are often passed off and sold as the costly French oak.
“In 2000, we were able to identify the geographic origin of the tree,” said research engineer Erwan Guichoux at the Bordeaux-Aquitaine branch of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). “Now we’ve greatly improved the technical aspects of doing that and we can identify the species.”
French oak barrels are used during the aging process for the tannins and distinctive flavors they give off. Such distinguished and desirable flavors as clove and vanilla are difficult to obtain, but French oak barrel-aging is very reliable way to secure their integration into the finished product. This type of wood is rare. Only 2% of all wine production involves barrel-aging. As a result, barrel-aging has become synonymous with the highest quality wine.
Fraudulent competitors have long taken advantage of this misunderstanding, purchasing cheaper oak and disguising it as French oak. But it’s not the barrel-aging that makes the difference, it’s the quality of the wood. Jean-Luc Sylvain, head of the French Coopers Federation, asserts that “Imitation barrels” don’t have the same regularity of aromas as French oak and you can’t guarantee the quality. We’ve been managing our oak forests for 350 years.”
INRA’s sequencing of the French oak genome has other practical applications than that of barrel fraud detection. Thanks to their research, winemakers seeking out specific aromas or tannin levels associated with different variations of French oak can now shop for the specific attributes they desire. For example, out of the two oak species, sessile and pedunculate, the former imparts many more aromas than tannins, with the converse being true for the later. This type hand-selected barrel engineering could revolutionize the luxury wine and spirits industry.