Are You Buying Wines With the Name of the Grape on the Label?

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I recently came across several wines that amazed me; the surprise came into their intense aromas and fantastic mouth feel; those wines were the product of an exemplary mix of over 5 varietals. The sommelier who advocated the wines noted that these were”premium wines” and that I shouldn’t be misled by the term”Blended” being on the tag. But, how did mixed wines become looked upon as poor wines?

It appears that perhaps a decade old law/regulation might have, and continues to, affect consumer’s perception of mixed wines. In a 2010 LA Times article on this topic, it highlighted a small known regulation,”The legislation is intended to protect consumers, but one consequence is that it has generated several generations of American wine drinkers who think that a varietal wine is obviously better than a mix. That is certainly not true…” The real question may be: Who’s the law really protecting? You see, a varietal name on a tag requires the wine in the bottle needs to be 75 percent of that particular varietal-for instance a Cabernet Sauvignon. Is the consumer protected in any meaningful way if a 75 percent varietal, or 90 percent varietal, or maybe a 51 percent varietal, is in the jar? Do consumers purchase wine foremost for flavor and odor or varietal proportions? To this point it appears they purchase for the varietal name on the tag.

Another instance of perplexing regulations in the wine industry addresses the term: Champagne. Since 2005, it’s prohibited for U.S. wineries to label any of the effervescent wine products as Champagne; can not even call it California Champagne.

Varietal wines which fall within the 75% labeling regulation are made by wineries that want to reveal that the varietal name on the tag (because the title sells), e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Raccoon Sounds, Zinfandel, etc.. Absent a varietal designation, customers will know it’s a blended wine, which in most cases makes for a much better wine. Many agree mixed wines can be more complicated, rich and balanced. Blended wines begin with a very special profile at the winemakers mind. By way of instance, from its beginning, The Riddler is a wine from seven distinct varietals which are especially chosen and mixed to achieve very particular odor, flavor, tannins, and acid and alcohol levels.

Regulations stipulating what makes a wine a varietal are random and not based upon logic or fact. Well, based upon regulation/law, it has to be because Australia requires varietals to be 85 percent versus Napa varietals being 75%. The EU also needs varietal wines to be 85 percent from a particular varietal grape. That is a rhetorical question, however, does a greater percentage varietal make for a better wine? The solution is obviously –no!

The percentage amount to be designated as a varietal from the U.S. is a minimal percent. States can go even farther; in Oregon they have stated that Chardonnay wine has to be a minimum of 90% to get a varietal label.

The 75% law for a varietal was created in 1978 and moved into full force by 1983. (A wine to be labeled as a varietal needed to be at least 51 percent of the varietal grape.) Now, is not it interesting that it had been changed from 51%? The next question is: Why would anybody want to modify the varietal label law? Obviously, any varietal branded wine may also be, and often is, a mix of around 25 percent (75% varietal + 25% other blossoms ), but at 74 percent it’s a mandated to be completely a blend.

Whenever the government becomes involved in legislating anything, like the quantity of ethanol added to gasoline or the make-up of wine, there are inherent political ramifications. This apparently innocent proposed regulation generated over 150 public comments from growers institutions, governments of France and Germany and lots of foreign wine producers that weighed into influence the TTB in their final rulemaking on grape varietal naming. Now, just the TTB approved grape names may be used to denote varietals on labels. But there were certainly a great deal of interested parties globally becoming a rather straight forward procedure.

If you browse through TTB public opinions on any wine related proposed law, they say the thrust of the efforts is”to protect the general public from fraud”. How is the public protected, by way of instance, when varietals and blends don’t show all the proportions of wines which go into any bottle of wine? It just appears to be hypocritical and random relative to the overriding”75% law” on varietal labeling versus only blended wines. Having a look at the people and entities that weigh-in during public comments for rulemaking problems, we find that they come from farmers, politicians, wineries, foreign governments, trade groups, and distributors while very few if any come from the general public. Bear in mind, the general public is those regulations should protect. Rule #1: If it is not broke, then do not fix it.

· To protect the general public from wine fraud.

· To protect wine entrepreneurs and their brands and even terroirs.

· Help modulate grape demand.

· Give protection to growers, vineyard wineries and owners relative to their brands and plants.

· Protect regional grape markets and earnings.

· Recognize political issues in the state, national and global levels.

If some of us question the fiscal pressures inherent in regulations, I bring up the ethanol industry as stated earlier. Without ethanol mixing regulations created by the Feds corporate earnings would be impacted. We have ethanol in fuels now.

There must have been a reason to increase the percentage part regulation; but I can not find the reply to this somewhat rhetorical remark. In the end, most all wines are mixed anyhow, to varying degrees. Even all 100% varietals aren’t created equally; a Cabernet Sauvignon from two unique wineries will be completely different. Contemplating terroir, oak barrels, time in oak barrels, yeast used in the fermentation process, classic, organic/non-organic, etc., two wines in the same varietal in 100% are different.

“A individual with increasing knowledge and sensory instruction may derive boundless enjoyment from wine.” – Ernest Hemingway

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