Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some of this, some of that...

In wine, as in many things, what's on the outside isn't always on the inside -- to put it simply, the things that the label advertises is not always what's in the bottle.

Let me explain (from a general US-centric perspective -- other countries do vary, and specific appellations may have different rules).  When you go to the wine store to buy a bottle of 2007 Reserve Napa Sauvignon Blanc at 13.8% alcohol...  all of those things are approximate.

The grape?  Once 75% of the bottle is filled with juice from that grape, the vintner can put anything they want into the bottle.  So your Sauvignon Blanc may well have some Semillon or Muscadelle.  I know of one major producer who's back-label text (which is, as far as I know, completely unregulated) begins with the phrase, "this 100% Chardonnay," despite the fact that their wine tastes severely of Gewürtztraminer -- I suspect about 10%.  Another producer -- Woodbridge, by Mondavi -- will only verify that their Chardonnay is 75% Chardonnay, and the remainder is "a blend of white grapes."  Why would vintners want to fudge the grape?  Well, for one, they don't want to give away their formulas -- and trust me, for the big producers, it's a formula, an attempt to make the same product year-from-year.  For another, consumers seem to self-brand as "I drink Chardonnay," or "I don't like Merlot."  I guarantee you that there's some guy out there right now drinking (or thinking about drinking, if it's early) Silver Oak Napa, saying "I hate Merlot," blissfully unaware that Silver Oak is only around 90% Cabernet, and that the remainder is a healthy chunk of Merlot, with a dash of Petit Verdot.

The alcohol level?  Nope.  There's wiggle room -- it varies from region to region -- but you can go anywhere from +/- 1.5% in Australia (although this may be changing soon to 0.8%), to +/- 0.5% in the US.  Figure that the alcohol level is approximate.  Again, it's to a producer's benefit to estimate the alcohol level -- generally to lowball it.  High-alcohol wines are taxed as "fortified wine," even if there's no addition of alcohol during the vinifiation, and therefore there's a tax break to underestimating the alcohol.  Additionally, in some states (South Carolina comes to mind, but it's assuredly not the only one) anything under a certain alcohol level can be sold in a wine-and-beer licensed retailer (an easier and less expensive licensce to get), while anything over that level is from a liquor-licensed retailer.  Since there are more wine retailers, it makes sense to try and keep your wine in their shops, rather than having it shunted over to the liquor stores.

The appellation?  I mean, as important as terroir is to wine, that's got to be dead-on, right?  Nope.  Once 85% of the juice has come from an appellation, the remainder can come from outside.  It allows vintners to source grapes for their blends that aren't found in a specific appellation, or to find the best grapes they can (ideally this would mean "best-quality," but it often means "best-priced").

The vintage?  Really, c'mon, even the year?  Yep.  Again, depending on the appellation, you're allowed some wiggle room there too -- older wine to add depth and complexity, younger wine to add fruit and youth.  Generally, there's not a lot of wiggle room here -- around 5% is the norm -- but not all the wine has to be from the same vintage.

Other terms -- "reserve," "old vines," even "estate grown" can be subverted.  "Reserve" is a marketing term in the US, nothing more (other countries have different rules -- in Italy and Spain, for example, the term has legal weight).  I know of two lines of wine that make only "reserve" wines, and nothing else.  Not that they're not decent, but the term is suspect.  "Old vines" generally means the vines used in the wine are an average age of 30+ years, and most producers respect that.  Is there a legal standard for it?  Nope.  Is someone out there bottling wine from 5-year-old vines and labeling it "old vines?"  Almost assuredly.  "Estate grown" generally means the grapes were grown on-site, but I know of a producer (in fact, the Chardonnay producer who makes "100% Chardonnay" with a splash of Gewürtztraminer) that labels all their low-priced wines as "estate grown" on the case, even though they make so much wine there must be outsourcing of production (additionally, the "estate grown" wine has a generic "California" appellation.  So, unless the "estate" is larger than any single appellation in California...).

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It is interesting to read about how vague some of these terms can be. Most people probably have no idea that there is so much wiggle room. It is kind of scary to think that just because a bottle says something like 100% Chard, it may not be true. Thank you for shedding some light on this one!