It has always seemed strange that, while labels tell us every little detail of what goes into processed food, we are told next to nothing about what goes into wine.
I raised this with a UK wine trade official back in the 1980s and got a very frosty reception indeed, as though I was letting the side down by raising such a consumerist issue. I was given the party line that it would be impossible because of the difficulty of distinguishing between ingredients and processing agents such as finings which, in theory but not always in practice, don’t remain in the wine.
Others have argued that winemaking techniques vary from vintage to vintage and that it would be impossibly expensive to create different back labels every year. Some wine producers have made the slightly alarming argument that consumers would be put off by the information and, besides, there wouldn’t be room to list everything. Others have claimed that there would be too little interest in the precise composition of wines to justify all the effort.
One has to admire the combined forces of the world’s wine trade for having dodged the niggling demands of ingredient labelling for so long. But we live in a world of allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, and today’s consumers expect transparency.
Warning labels about the harmful effects of alcohol on the unborn became mandatory in the US in the 1989. In 2005, came the now-ubiquitous “contains sulphites”, an acknowledgment that the sulphur compounds naturally present in wine — and also widely added to keep wine and all sorts of other fruit products stable and fresh — can adversely affect asthmatics. UK supermarket Waitrose apparently receives four or five queries about sulphites each week.
But generally those who produce wine have been rather out of sync with those who buy it or might buy it. Younger consumers, in particular, are seeking out much more information about a product that has historically provided so few clues as to its contents.
Last July, film star Cameron Diaz really got up wine producers’ noses when she launched what was described as “clean wine”. Avaline organic wine is distinguished mainly by its marketing. According to its website, it was created as a reaction to the fact that “there’s no obligation . . . to name any of the more than 70 additives that are used in the winemaking process to alter the taste, color, and mouthfeel of what is in your glass”.
Responding to this in August, Master of Wine Richard Bampfield, with 40 years’ experience in the wine trade, wrote on sustainablewine.co.uk that the term “clean wine” had “raised hackles amongst the wine fraternity who, understandably, resent the accompanying claim that most other wines must, by definition, be dirty . . . I too would defend the wine industry against claims that it is dirty but I also believe that much of what goes on is, at best, grubby.”
I presume Bampfield is referring to how some commercial brands add colouring, flavouring and sweetening to disguise shortcomings. Yet even certain expensive wines contain added tannin and acid, and sugar was routinely added to most of France’s finest wines, to be fermented into alcohol, before the climate could be relied upon to deliver fully ripe grapes. Today there is no shortage of commercial additives specifically designed to make processes easier or to rescue wine from various afflictions and harmful bacteria.
Nicole Sierra Rolet is another realist. The well-known producer of Chêne Bleu wines in south-east France noted during a recent online debate about wine labelling, “I continue to believe the wine world is very vulnerable to a scandal about the bad stuff that some people have been doing to their wines that will get many more headlines and take us all down with them. This is an accident waiting to happen and we have to act fast.”
Fortunately, the EU has a plan — and since Europe is by far the dominant wine-producing and wine-consuming continent, the plan is highly likely to be enacted globally. Since 2017 the Brussels-based CEEV association of European wine producers has been considering the question of wine labelling and has now convinced both its members and EU officials that ingredient listing and nutritional labelling (calories, for example) should be mandatory.
These welcome new labelling provisions are part of the new — don’t groan — Common Agricultural Policy, with the new rules likely to come into force in 2023.
For the first time for a food or drink product, the ingredients are to be presented digitally rather than spelt out on the label. CEEV is developing a digital platform open to wine producers both in and out of the EU (so even English ones . . .) that will oversee e-labels for wines to ensure they follow the same protocols wherever they come from.
This all seems pretty sensible to me. Those of us obsessed by the minutiae of how various wines are made and what was used to make them can study these QR codes and the like to our hearts’ content while other drinkers won’t find their labels too cluttered.
Nutritional information will be spelt out for calorie counters and diabetics apparently. But those with specific allergies will need to get their phones out to read the details of what each wine contains.
I have long thought that the wine trade is far too dilatory about the many people who find specific wines — or sometimes all reds or all whites — disagree with them. The problem is that people who work in wine tend to drink any sort of wine. With unbridled enthusiasm. Which means they tend to be unsympathetic towards what they see as faddiness. As a result, there has been too little research into allergies and intolerances.
Of course by far the most potentially harmful ingredient in wine — all wine, whether “natural”, “clean”, organic or whatever — is alcohol, but pointing that out here might be seen as letting the side down.
More stockists from Wine-searcher.com. Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
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