Natural selection

Wine is a natural product… So, obviously there’s no reason for anyone to need to print a list of ingredients on a label; after all, what are you going to put there apart from grapes and SO2. Then you take a look at contents such Diammonium phosphate (yeast nutrient), Bentonite and Pectinolytic Enzymes (fining agents), whose names appear on bottles of own-label wine at the Co-op in the UK, and you seem to have another very good reason not to want to opt for disclosure. Do we really want to scare the consumers? Are they capable of handling this information? Shouldn’t we leave them in their ignorant bliss?

Until recently, the only pressure for ingredient listing has come from outside the industry. Indeed in the UK, the Co-op claims that to do so is actually illegal; after 13 years, this is still the only chain to have taken this step. But now there’s a robin in the nest; a group of – some would say eccentric – winemakers are beginning to create a situation in which these listings may become a necessity.
Producers of natural wines and their keen fans murmour darkly about the potions to which “industrial” winemakers (a term that sometimes seems to cover anyone who even adds sulphor to their vats) routinely resort. This pressure is unlikely to go away, especially as the Naturalistas slouch slowly towards legally defining sets of standards and practices. Obviously no one is going to suggest that everybody should go natural, but the existence of these purists inevitably raises questions about what others are doing. Observers like Fiona Beckett are writing compelling pieces in which winemakers such as Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon dish the dirt on “Why some reds are so soft and syrupy”
There’s a parallel here with what is happening in countries like South Africa and Argentina. If you’re not certified as a Fairtrade winery, you’d better demonstrate that you treat your employees properly. I know that there’s not much space on a back label (and that European producers often prefer to not even to have one of these) but that’s also true of a yoghurt pot and a chocolate bar, and producers of those products seem to manage.
Just as they also manage to achieve some level of accuracy in what they print there. Could somebody, somewhere please tell me why New World wines think that it is legitimate to allow themselves 1-1.5% leeway in their alcohol content? A wine labeled “12.5% alc. by vol.” can, in reality, actually contain between 11.0%-14.0%. Above 14%, the margin drops to 1%, so a Californian Zinfandel labeled “15.4% alc. by vol.” might actually contain anything between 14.5%-16.5%.

6 comments

  1. Robert, I've always tried to understand this alcohol level issue. Never got it! I wouldn't say it happens only with New World wines, though. I heard the same from many winegrowers in Europe. I even wondered if this is due to some oblivion before printing the labels…

  2. Transparency was never a strong point of the wine industry. I hope we will learn, I hope consumers will ask for more detailed information in future.

  3. Most other comments – via Twitter and Facebook have been negative. I have mixed feelings but will predict that we will end up with listings, whether we like it or not…

  4. @Robert, so are you for or against listing the ingredients on the label? And why?

  5. Sorry Fabio for leaving you hanging. On balance, I'm probably “for” as a voluntary measure. If yoghurt has ingredient listing, why shouldn't wine? If it's as pure a product as we claim, we have no need to worry. And if not, maybe the Naturalistas have a point.

    My thought is that the wine industry will be cornered into listing of some kind by governments and by its own renegades. So maybe it should bow before the inevitable.

  6. A bit late replying myself! sorry! I think I'm also in favour of listing ingredients. I believe there's a few winemakers who do it volunarily, an I may do it myself next time I print labels.

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