Please Don’t Dilute

Many wine regulations make no sense.  But to me, the worst is the one that allows a portion, usually 15%, of grapes from outside of an appellation to be included in a wine and yet keep the appellation’s name of the label.

A related peculiarity is that, at least in the US, if a label states a vineyard name on it, then all the grapes must come from that vineyard, but if it says “Napa Valley,” only 85% of the grapes must come from Napa Valley.  Fully15% can come from anywhere else in California.  What were the regulatory authorities thinking?  This is not a problem unique to California or the United States.  It’s a regulation embraced by many wine-producing regions around the world.

The relatively recent emphasis on grape growing location and “terroir” in current winemaking, especially in the New World, is welcome.  Site-specific wines, such as Merry Edwards’ array of Pinot Noirs, demonstrate that France doesn’t have a monopoly on wines that express a place-specific particularity.  Place matters because where the grapes are grown can potentially determine the fundamental character of a wine.  So why hedge on location?

Blends Work

There is a viable rationale for allowing wines made from different grapes to be blended and yet still carry a varietal (grape) name on the label as long as 75% of the wine comes from the named grape.  Making wine from a blend of grapes is a time-honored tradition that probably started as an economic necessity.  The “Bordeaux blend” likely originated to take advantage of the different growth cycle of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.  Merlot buds and ripens earlier than Cabernet.  Hence, it can be picked before autumn rains.  The downside of course is that it is more susceptible to spring frost.  On the flip side, Cabernet is protected from frost because it buds later, but is at risk of rain dilution at harvest time.  Planting both is the farmer’s equivalent of not putting of one’s eggs in a single basket, so that neither spring frosts nor autumn rains alone will wipe out the year’s entire crop.

Topping Up

The rule that allows a winemaker to include a small–5%–amount of wine from another vintage without losing the ability to state a single vintage date on the label stems from the logistics of barrel and tank size.  The rationale is that a little wine from a previous vintage might be needed to top up the barrels of the current one.  How often that is truly necessary is unknown.

But where’s the logic of putting 15% of wine from the Central Valley into a wine labeled Napa Valley?  Certainly it gives the winery the potential to expand its limited production of expensive wines at a reduced cost, but at the risk of diluting their quality and, eventually, their reputation.

Diluting the Wine

It was just that kind of temptation that led to the concept of “château bottling”–mise en bouteille au château–in Bordeaux in the 1920s and 1930s.  At that time, wine was shipped from the property in barrels to be bottled elsewhere.  When Château Lafite-Rothschild, for example, would ship five barrels of wine to Paris or London for bottling and sale, the merchant in those cities could add a touch of wine from Algeria and–presto–there would be the equivalent of five and half barrels of bottled wine, all of which would be sold under the Lafite label at Lafite’s rarified price.  To protect the integrity of their wines, the châteaux realized they needed to take control of their bottling, and they did exactly that.  Wine producers around the world need to do the same thing with place names.

United States AVAs

One might think that this regulation is holdover from when the appellation laws were first conceived in the US.  But the AVA (American Viticultural Area) system is only about 30 years old, dating from 1980 when Augusta, Missouri was awarded the nation’s first AVA (Napa Valley was second, in 1983).  The legalization of dilution of place is still occurring.  Canada’s VQA system just put in place in 1988, includes the 85% rule.  It’s ironic that the wineries from the Niagara Peninsula trumpet their unique terroir–they are making superb Pinot Noir there–but still allow 15% of the wine to come from outside the region.  Likewise, Chile’s wine regulations, adopted in 1995, allow for blending one appellation with another while maintaining the more prestigious name on the label.

The states of California and Oregon understand the importance of protecting their names.  AVA regulations allow for only 75% of the grapes to come from a state for that state to put its name on the label.  But state law in California and Oregon go further, requiring 100% of the wine to come from their respective states.  Why doesn’t Napa Valley do the same? Producers in Napa Valley or elsewhere could formulate higher standards and those in compliance could indicate it on the label.

A group of Chianti producers did just that when they established the Galo Nero–no relation to the E & J Gallo Winer–consortium in the 1920s and promulgated regulations to protect the integrity of Chianti when they felt others were using the name fraudulently.  Members were allowed to affix its distinctive neck label logo–a Black Rooster–to the bottle.  The DOC regulations for Chianti actually evolved from that group’s voluntary guidelines.

For thirty years, from 1977 until 2007, Oregon’s Liquor Control Commission mandated even stricter standards for Oregon wines.  For an Oregon AVA to be listed on the label, it required 100% of the wine to come from the appellation.  In 2007, they seemingly back-peddled and lowered their requirement to 95%.  David Adelsheim, one of Oregon’s best producers, said that the change was made to give some producers flexibility, similar to the regulations for vintage dating.  Does 5% dilute the integrity of place?  I don’t know.  How about 6 or 7%?

Europe’s Approach

As of August 1, 2009, European Union regulations changed the name of the French system from AOC (appellation d’origine controllée) to AOP (appellation d’origine protégée) to establish a uniform system for protecting wine and food place names throughout Europe.  Nonetheless, the specifics remain the same.  If a label says Gevrey-Chambertin, all of the wine–not just 85% of it–must come from that appellation.  If 1% comes from a neighboring village, it must carry a much less prestigious–and broader–appellation, namely, Bourgogne Rouge.

The same is true for Italy’s DOC (denominazione origine controllata) and DOCG (garantita) system.  If the label says Brunello di Montalcino, all the wine must come from that sharply delimited area, according to Lars Leicht, a spokesperson for Castello Banfi, one of best producers of Brunello.  In fact, to maintain the quality and unique character of Brunello, some of the vineyards within the Brunello area are disqualified from the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.

The French, Italians and other Europeans have a different category with looser regulations, which do allow for inclusion of 15% of wines from different appellations.  In France, the former Vin de Pays (changed as of August 1 to Indication Géographique Protégée) and in Italy, the wines labeled IGT (Indicazione Geographica Typica) need not come exclusively from one appellation.

Please Don’t Dilute

The current focus on making wines from grapes grown in specific delineated areas should be applauded because it provides consumers with an array of unique wines.  That’s one of the joys of wine–they are all different.  Although there is safety in ordering the same kind of wine all the time–no surprises–most people, given the opportunity, relish the chance to explore different ones.

Just as the Bordelais took control of bottling to maintain quality, image, and ultimately price, wine producers in the United States and elsewhere need to embrace an appellation system or form voluntary organizations to protect the great and unique wine regions of the world–instead of diluting them.

August 25, 2009