Jun 24, 201012:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
But I Read It Right Here on the Label
Wine is not beer.
That’s an obvious statement, but to many Americans, the let’s-just-drink-the-stuff-now mentality means wine is way too much work.
To begin, you often need a special tool just to open the package. Then there’s the whole swirl, see, sniff, sip ritual that takes time and concentration. What a pain in the butt. Add to that the “language” of wine, which means that a thesaurus has be employed so some level of intelligent conversation about the wine and its aroma can be shared with others who are also working hard to create verbal descriptors that impress and amaze.
It can be confusing, at the least, and on a grand scale, way too much trouble and much too much pretension. “You get the ripe fruit of a fresh cantaloupe from the Salinas Valley in this wine? Have you gone stark-raving mad? This is obviously the bouquet of honeydew melon from Belize.”
Then there’s the whole issue of trying to decipher, maybe even translate from another language, a label. A label, for crying out loud! All we want to do is understand, in plain language, what it is the label is trying to tell us. Where is the wine from? When was it harvested? What kind of grape is in the wine? Who did all the work? Were any animals harmed in the making of this wine? Etc., etc., etc. The king of Siam himself would be pushed to the brink.
Because simplification is not the alternative and wine will remain an overcomplicated pursuit for many, maybe the best we can hope for is transparency. Yeah, that’s the ticket. We’ll take a page out of the political candidate’s notebook and promise transparency. That whole transparency direction is certainly working well for government. Our elected officials are “all up in that” because they promised it to us.
The best place to find all evidence of what is in a product, and the other endless questions we seem to ask in our consuming society, is to check out the label. Truth in labeling is the direction most products have moved toward, either because they really want to have an open and honest relationship with their consumers or because the government has mandated it. Either way, the consumer has the information about most dietary products necessary for an intelligent purchase.
Wine is very different, and you have to bring a previous knowledge of wine to the party. On many wine labels, particularly those from Europe, you will not find the name of the grapes used to make the wine. They will instead list the name of the area or the town or the commune where the grapes were harvested and the wine was made.
You will have to know that wine from Italy’s Chianti region is made from Sangiovese grapes. You will know this because “everyone” knows that Sangiovese is the only grape varietal allowed in the red wines of Chianti. –– unless the red wine is designated Indicazione Geografica Tipica, IGT, and in that case you may find other grapes in the wine, such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot. “Everyone” knows that.
In many cases, winemakers from every corner of the globe will not disclose to you on the label what grapes are in the blend or the percentage of which grapes were used. Often the term “none of the above” applies to label disclosure information.
Let’s say you feel a celebration coming on, and you decide to splurge and pick up a bottle of champagne. You, being an informed consumer, know that the only three grapes allowed in the Champagne region of France are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. You also know that only sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France are allowed under international agreements to be called champagne on the label.
But if you pick up a bottle of “champagne” from Sonoma County, California or the Finger Lakes area of northern New York state, then the labels clearly state in big letters “champagne.” And the grapes are not limited to just the three varietals allowed in Champagne, France. They can be whatever the winemaker deems acceptable to his/her desires.
Are you seeking nutritional information from a wine label? It’s easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle, just to be biblical for a moment. No winery will tell you anything on their label about the level of sugars, carbohydrates and other dietary items present in the wine, either through direct addition of a component or as a byproduct of the winemaking process.
Wineries will tell you that the wine contains sulfites, an added preservative, as well as a natural byproduct of yeast used in the winemaking process. But how much? And what is the government standard for minimum daily requirements of sulfites?
Wine labels will also tell you the alcohol content, but it only has to be accurate up to 1.5 percent deviation from actual. That’s a broad range. A wine labeled 14 percent alcohol could be 12.5 percent or 15.5 percent. These last two items, sulfites and alcohol, are noted on the label because the U.S. government says it has to be there. Otherwise, I wonder if the winery would have disclosed.
Did you know that many wines are “fined,” filtered for impurities, with egg whites? Are you allergic to eggs? Even though the egg whites pass through the wine, wine is a magnet. Everything that a wine touches has an effect. Obviously there are no eggs in wine, but many wines were touched by eggs. Do you know which ones? There’s no way of finding out from the label.
Part of the problem is that wineries are happy to provide information, but what information would that be? What do consumers really want to know? There’s a lot of story not being told, but what part of the story is important to whom? And where do you tell it? A wine label does not provide a lot of real estate for disclosure purposes.
Instead wineries have opted not to open the Complete Transparency Box of Pandora, preferring instead to let the current state of affairs be what they are.
The concern in the wine industry is that some government bureaucrat is going to build a career on writing new labeling regulations. And if the past is prologue, those regulations will not please curious consumers –– or even inform them.
In the meantime, drink what you like and trust Bacchus. But don’t ask too many questions.