WINE LABELS CAN BE LEADING OR MISLEADING
Before 1860’s, wine was sold in bulk in grocery stores. Even today in small Spanish towns, people bring their empty bottles to grocery stores to be filled with wine. Much of this wine is hopelessly oxidized, but many people including winemakers get used to such wines over time.
Labels represent the principal means by which a winery communicates with the consumer. Before 1860’s, bottles and labels were rarities. Hotels purchased wine by the barrel and bottled in their cellars. In busy establishments, wine tasted better as it was relatively fresh due to turnover, and provided staff were honest enough not to dilute it.
Today, labels represent a major and important vehicle of communication and marketing tool. If you ever have the time to observe uninitiated wine consumers in stores, you will be surprised how they select wine.
Labels can be divided into three groups; main-, neck (mainly for vintage); and back label for extra information.
In many countries the main label wording must conform to specific legislation, but requires a knowledgeable consumer to decipher it.
In most European countries wine labels assume knowledgeable consumers familiar with geography, grape varieties and style of different regions. In France wines are labelled according to Appellation d’Origine Controlee laws, Vin de Pays regulations and Vin de table requirements.
AOC laws assume consumers know each region’s main grape varieties, but even this is unsatisfactory as wines can be blended in different proportions. In essence, Bordelais and producers of many other regions are only interested in consumers who buy the wines they like. Languedoc and Roussillon, two southern regions, have now started marketing varietal wines as world markets want. In France, by law a varietal wine must consist of the variety stated on the label exclusively. Ditto for vintage. Champagne labels contain relevant information in form of NM (negociant-manipulant), RM (recoltantr-manipulant); CM (co-operative de manipulation); RC (recoltant-cooperative, a grower selling wine made by a co-operative); MA (marque d’acheteur, buyer’s brand); SR (societe de recolants, small family company); Recoltant (very small operation).
Germany, to my mind, has the most informative wine labels, which provide the name and the address of the producer, content, alcohol by volume, the vintage, the name of the wine (single vineyard if applicable), quality level, and grape variety in most instances.
Italian generic wines don’t bother with much detail except for sub region, vintage, alcohol content, and address of the producer, but vareital labels provide relevant information. Blends indicate variety of grapes only.
In Spain, labels are generic, but provide some quality information. Sin crianza (no aging), crianza (two years of barrel aging), reserva (two years of aging plus one year of bottle aging), reserva special (three years of aging plus one in bottle).
Wines blended form different European countries must indicate EUROPEAN COMMUNKY WINE.
New World, a term coined recently indicating countries outside of Europe, wineries decided to market their products by grape variety, and hence label accordingly. However there are stipulations consumers must know. In the U S A, a varietal wine must comprise 75 percent of the grape variety indicated.
In New York, the wine must contain 75% of the labeled varietal for vinifera and hybrid grapes. The 51% requirement applies only to native Labrusca grapes whose flavor is very foxy.
In California and Washington, the varietal minimum is 75%.
In Oregon, the requirement is stricter: 90% (except for Sauvignon Blanc, which may 70% to allow for Bordeaux-style blending).
In addition, 95% of the grapes must come from the stated vintage (except for a CA wine from a non-AVA region, in which case it is 85%).
Update, 2009, courtesy of E. Connolly
Source: Wine for Dummies, California Wine for Dummies, and Cornell's Wines course (HAdm 4430).
In Australia, a varietal wine must contain a minimum of 85 percent of the grape. Generally, Australian wineries provide detailed blending information on the label, often by percentage.
New Zealand varietal wines must contain 100 percent of the grape stated on the label. In Chile and Argentina wineries use 100 percent of the variety stated.
Canada’s wine labelling is unusual and goes by province. In Ontario branded wines may contain 75 percent (for 2003 vintage 90 percent has been approved as a temporary measure due to a shortfall of crop) offshore wines, and still print Product of Ontario. The correct wording should be Cellared in Canada from imported and local wines. In Quebec, the situation is similar.
If a wine comprises 75 or 90 percent from another country it should be stated clearly on the labels where it originates.
It seems to me that the logic behind such labelling is flawed. Obviously large wineries, knowing that grapes grown in Ontario and British Columbia are much more expensive that those from offshore and less ripe, have been able to persuade legislators to allow such wording.
Only big national wineries are interested in such misleading labelling as profit margins for such wines are very lucrative.
Small wineries producing VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) quality wines cannot and will not resort to such labelling.
Ontario wineries have for long and correctly fought offshore producers accusing them to blend wines from many sources and selling them as their own.
Ontario is world’s largest ice wine producing region and successfully exports significant quantities to Far eastern countries including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Japan and China. European markets will soon see a number of ice wines as required agreements have been signed in 2003. Now that the ice wine enjoys success imitations started appearing on remote markets claiming to be produced in Canada whereas in reality they originate in obscure Mediterranean countries. Sometimes even British Columbia companies dealing with Far eastern markets peddle wines with false labels. Private eyes have been hired to trace fraudulent merchandise to sources and prosecute them. This is an expensive and time-consuming proposition but success comes with a price.
Labelling regulations require thoughtful, enforceable legislation and diligent customs officers to pinpoint fraudulent merchandise and prevent same from entering the country.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu