I recently came across several wines that amazed me; the surprise came in 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 blended wines become looked upon as inferior wines?
It seems that perhaps a decade’s 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 understood regulation,”The law is designed to protect consumers, but one consequence is that it has created several generations of American wine drinkers who think that a varietal wine is always better than a blend. That’s certainly not the case…” The real question may be: Who is the law really protecting? You see, a varietal name on a label requires the wine in the bottle needs to be 75% of that specific varietal-for instance a Cabernet Sauvignon. Is the consumer protected in any meaningful way if a 75 percent varietal, or 90 percent varietal, or even a 51% varietal, is in the jar? Do consumers buy wine foremost for taste and odor or varietal percentages? To this point it appears they buy for the varietal name on the label.
Another instance of perplexing regulations in the wine business addresses the term: Champagne. An international trade agreement with the French, aimed at protecting the champagne moniker, stipulates only the French can use”champagne” to explain a sparkling wine. Since 2005, it’s illegal for U.S. wineries to label any of their effervescent wine products as Champagne; can’t even call it California Champagne.
Varietal wines which fall within the 75% labeling regulation are made by wineries that want to reveal the varietal name on the tag (because the title sells), e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc.. Absent a varietal designation, consumers will know it is a blended wine, which in most instances makes for a much better wine. Many agree blended wines can be more complicated, rich and balanced. Blended wines start with a very special profile in the winemakers mind. For instance, from its beginning, Raccoon Sounds is a wine from seven different varietals that are specifically chosen and blended to achieve very particular aroma, taste, tannins, and acid and alcohol levels.
Regulations stipulating what makes a wine a varietal are arbitrary and not based upon logic or fact. For example, is an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon better than a Napa, California Cabernet Sauvignon? Well, based upon regulation/law, it has to be because Australia requires varietals to be 85% versus Napa varietals being 75%. The EU also requires varietal wines to be 85 percent from a specific varietal grape. This is a rhetorical question, but, does a greater percentage varietal make for a better wine? The answer is clearly–no!
The percentage amount to be designated as a varietal from the U.S. is a minimum percentage. States can go even further; in Oregon they have stipulated 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. Before 1978, the varietal labeling regulation was set at 51%. (A wine to be labeled as a varietal had to be at least 51 percent of that varietal grape.) Now, isn’t it interesting that it had been changed from 51%? The next question is: Why would anybody want to change the varietal label regulation? Obviously, any varietal labeled wine may also be, and often is, a blend of around 25% (75% varietal + 25% other grapes), but at 74 percent it is a mandated to be totally a blend. In the spirit of full disclosure to the consumer, why not have the TTB specify that all wines list all varietals in any bottle of wine; problem solved.
Whenever the government becomes involved with legislating anything, such as the amount of ethanol added to gasoline or the make-up of wine, there are inherent political ramifications. Case in point, in 1982 the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of the Treasury), was lobbied to set rules to regulate approved names for grapes. This apparently innocent proposed regulation generated over 150 public comments from growers associations, governments of France and Germany and many foreign wine producers that weighed into sway the TTB in their final rulemaking on grape varietal naming. Now, just the TTB approved grape names can be used to denote varietals on labels. But there were certainly a lot of interested parties worldwide becoming a rather straight forward process.
If you browse through TTB public opinions on any wine related proposed regulation, they say the thrust of the efforts is”to protect the public from fraud”. How is the public protected, for instance, when varietals and blends don’t show all the percentages of wines that go into any bottle of wine? It just appears to be hypocritical and random relative to the overriding”75% regulation” on varietal labeling versus only blended wines. Having a look at the people and entities who weigh-in during public comments for rulemaking problems, we find 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 isn’t broke, then do not fix it.
So what are a few of the reasons for wine regulations on labeling?
· 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 owners and wineries relative to their brands and plants.
· Protect regional grape markets and revenues.
· Recognize political issues in the state, federal and international levels.
If any of us question the fiscal pressures inherent in regulations, I again bring up the ethanol industry as stated earlier. Without ethanol mixing regulations created by the Feds corporate earnings would be impacted. We still have ethanol in fuels now.
The underlying question in this discussion: Are consumers better off using the 75% varietal label regulations versus, say the older 51% regulation? There must have been a reason to raise the percentage component regulation; but I can’t find the reply to this somewhat rhetorical comment. After all, most all wines are blended anyhow, to varying degrees. Even all 100% varietals aren’t created equally; a Cabernet Sauvignon from two different wineries will be completely different. Contemplating terroir, oak barrels, time in oak barrels, yeast used in the fermentation process, vintage, organic/non-organic, etc., two wines from the same varietal in 100% are different.
“A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine.” – Ernest Hemingway