Friday, June 15, 2007

More on varietal labelling (Varietals: 2)

A few posts ago I posted a question about how important the use of varietals on the label was. Andrew replied:

"Important. Various reasons but mainly as an indication to the novice (even the intermediate) on what to expect. A Pinot Grigio is different to a Chardonnay. Having said that how many could tell the difference between a New World Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon?"

Good point. I was following a specific train of thought and ignoring some other important issues.

If a particular producer has several different wines, made from different grapes in the same region, then of course it makes sense to label them as such if only to differentiate one from another. If I happen to want to buy something from "Montana", it matters whether I pick up a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling.

However, my "beef" (argument / issue / hang-up) is with the "tyranny" of varietal labelling in principle not simply as a differentiator, but as the main sales cue.

Producers from well established regions in France and other parts of Europe, are being told that one of the reasons they cannot sell their wines is that they don't list the constituent varietals on their label.

The issue is, for example, would the label "Chenin Blanc" be any useful indicator for a novice consumer of Savennieres? Would the blend of Carignan, Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache really enlighten a potential consumer of St. Chinian? In either case the consumers might get a shock.

What I wanted to get at is that if we restrict the entry level wine education to learning the "basic" grape varieties it is very difficult to broaden people's horizons beyond the usual suspects. It also makes selling blends more difficult (when these might actually be more approachable for beginners).

Most importantly, it perpetuates the dominance of "New World" brands that can market whatever varieties they want or are popular. If they can extend their range to include anything the consumer might recognise, why should the consumer look to a lowly regional European producer whose local laws and limited access to vineyards only allow him or her to plant one or two?

This question is almost too broad for a blog, so I apologise for the length and the ranting tone. However, I think that if we could address this issue we would see a way for a re-energising of quality wine sales that would benefit producers and consumers alike. Wouldn't that be worth it?


Peter F May said...

The flaw in your argument is the wide range and varieties grown in the new world regions as opposed by the old world that uses regional names.

If I see bottle of Red Burgundy then I assume it is Pinot Noir and even if I don't know that, I will find that ALL red Burgundies have varietal sameness. The old world regionally named wines have legal restrictions on the varieties used.

But if I see a red wine labelled just Stellenbosch I have no idea whether the next bottle of red Stellenbosch will have any connection with the first since all varieties are allowed and many used.

Same with Napa Valley, Margaret River or anywhere you want to name.

When I go to the supermarket to buy an apple or potato the sign/label should tell me the variety and where it comes from, because the taste/use of them differ by variety. We should have no less for out wine.

And not only do I disagree with you, I go further in that I think that all wines should display the exact cepage in the bottle. As you know EU law requires a vareitally named wine to contain just 85% of the name variety.

Peter F May said...

My response above was to an earlier post of yours (which I then put in this later post). You address some of the issues in this post, but you say varietal labelling is a 'tyranny' and you object to it being "the main sales cue".

But why is it worse to identify a wine by its variety rather than its region -- especially when the region limits the varieties that can be in the bottle?

If well-established regions can't sell their wines because they don't show the variety then they have the choice of meeting consumer demand or staying true to historic practice and not making sales.

You ask 'would the label "Chenin Blanc" be any useful indicator for a novice consumer of Savennieres' -- well, yes if that consumer had enjoyed a Chenin previously. How many people know that Savennieres is Chenin? And if you do know it, what harm is there in putting it somewhere on the label. (You know it -- why? If region is so important to you, why bother to find which variety it is???

The old world -- French in particular -- have taken the attitude that others may make good wines from the same varieties but only they can make Bordeaux, Burgundy etc. But the world has moved on. Right or wrong, the consumer understands varieties and wants to know them.

You end by saying that varietal labelling gives the new world an unfair advantage over the lowly European restricted by which varieties they can plant. There are two different points there. The European can put the variety on the back label and compete there. But as to varieties allowed, I am hard pressed to think of an area where other than good varieties are allowed. And in places in Spain and Italy for example, world varieties are being allowed in the traditional plantings. Latest is Cava allowing Chardonnay (ugh).........

Robert McIntosh said...


all very good points and I am sorry not to have responded properly earlier.

I drafted a response but it got so long I thought I would post it as a separate post.