“Waiter, why is there a cup of Syrah in my Cabernet?”
While often taken for granted, the information on a wine label reveals a lot about what’s in the bottle. The most critical descriptive terms, (alcohol content, vintage, appellation/region, grape/varietal content) are regulated so as to allow us to reasonably assess a wine’s value prior to purchase.
With a working knowledge of the ‘regs’ we can do better for ourselves as consumers of, and commentators on, wine. In a short series of articles over the next two weeks we’ll look at the key components that can help steer us toward a ‘smarter’ purchase. First and foremost, let’s begin with:
Nothing is going to indicate the qualities of an untested wine more so than the grape(s) used to make it. For the purpose of this article let’s focus on the mostly “New World” practice of identifying a wine by the type of grape used in its creation as opposed to its region i.e. Chardonnay (a variety of grape) vs. Chablis (a French chardonnay producing region) or Sangiovese (grape) vs. Chianti (region).
When a wine is labeled as ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’, ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, ‘Malbec’, ‘Shiraz’ et al, it is required that, at minimum, 75% of the juice in the bottle be wine made from the grape variety indicated. Thus a 750 milliliter bottle of Chardonnay must contain at least 563ml of Chardonnay. The key takeaway here is that 25% of the juice may NOT be made from the declared grape. The ability to blend often gives winemakers the latitude to improve wines – an austere Chardonnay may soften a bit if a little Semillon is added. Similarly, Cabernet Sauvignon marries very well with the other grapes of Bordeaux: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. More nefariously however, the ability to blend often gives owners the latitude to lower costs – harvested Chardonnay might cost $2600 per ton while available Semillon is only $600. Unlike Cab, Pinot Noir does not take well to blending (to put it mildly) and the market is awash with Pinots that, while satisfying label requirements, are unrecognizable as Pinot upon tasting, having been reduced to $12.99 bottles of harsh red liquid after the addition of cheap Syrah.
It is also perfectly honest and ordinary to label wines as “Red”, or “White” table wines or blends – often with proprietary designations affixed: “Rubicon”, “The Prisoner”, “Insignia”. A winery may choose to describe a wine as “Red Wine” that is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and command a $200 price for it. On the other hand, Jordan’s 2006 “Cabernet Sauvignon” contains the bare minimum 75% Cab and is blended with quite a bit of Merlot resulting in a beautiful and legitimate “Cab” at $50. In many cases a front or back wine label may describe the exact composition of a blend and this transparency is an indicator of better quality. Blended wines that do not declare the varietal mix on the bottle shouldn’t necessarily raise a red flag however if you can’t find it on the web it usually means that they’re hiding something (look up a grape called ‘Berger’).
For more scintillating information on wine please visit McKinney Wine Merchant at 120 W. Virginia St in Historic Downtown or see it on the web at www.mckinneywine.com