Truth on the bottle?

As a wine person I receive a steady stream of things-vinous to read, be it in print form or links sent by email.  Many of these just pass by as there is obviously more to read than hours in the day to do that reading.

One such reading suggestion came from my wife who left for me on our kitchen counter a recent McLean’s magazine, opened at an article about flavoured wines.  The theme of the article was to describe a trend in some segments of the industry to add artificial or natural flavour agents to modest wines thus to enhance their character for segments of the market who prefer those wines to those that are unadulterated.

This brought to mind a paper I wrote a few years ago on labelling trends.  At the time the EU was in the process of harmonizing all things related to foods.  This harmonization extended to such areas as the structure of appellations across the wine-producing countries of the Union (not the appellations themselves, but the hierarchy of quality levels and how these are classified and labelled).  Labels themselves were also part of the scope of this harmonization initiative – again, not the design but the minimum content require.  This process included identification of the presence of sulfites and a warning of the harms alcohol presents to pregnant women.

In that article I suggested that the next step would be to expand the label content for wines to include a description of ingredients as well as a table which reported the proportion of daily minimums for a handful of nutrients. This was written at the time of a number of contentious exposés on the introduction of a number wild and scary additives to some marginal wines:  these included flavour and colour agents that were known to significant allergenic properties.

Despite the force available to the EU to impose and enforce standards across a wide range of content areas and geographies – standards that informally establish norms for other, non-EU jurisdictions – the needle on the expanded label has not budged.

The McLean’s article suggested to me it may be time to reopen this file.  I have no problem with enhancing wines to adapt their properties to the palate preferences of a certain target market.  However, if I were to consume such a wine I would like to know that it was in fact altered, and I suspect many consumers of these wines would also like to know how they were altered.

Did you know there are some 59 additives to wine permitted by EU regulation?  These additives are used for fermentation, clarification, acidification, de-acidification, stabilization, enrichment (adding concentration), etc. Most of these additives are natural elements and for most consumers would have no adverse health effects if consumed without foreknowledge of their presence.  This general statement would provide no solace for people who might have a reaction which could have been avoided with proper notice. Hence, there may be a case for disclosure as it seems more people are susceptible to adverse reactions to food additives than ever before.

In their book Authentic Wine Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW made some interesting observations on the topic of expanded label information.  The first is curious: they suggest that consumers may not wish to see more disclosure of the contents of the bottle of wine they are about to choose.  They presume wine is a natural product so why report ingredients (which themselves are natural and may add no flavour) which may introduce doubts that would be too hard to grasp (?). The second observation is practical: small wineries who export to many markets would incur added costs with extensive label translation efforts necessary to address the information needs of different markets.

The third Goode/Harrop observation is the most compelling:  If winemakers use extensive additives while consumers seek wines which are made naturally, disclosure will encourage makers over time to reduce the degree of intervention.

Goode and Harrop include some very effective demonstrations of enhanced, plain English wine label disclosure which some progressive makers and retailers in England and the USA have adopted. For some, the future has arrived.

This is a topic that will be with us for a while and it will be interesting to see whether it is consumer demand or regulatory vigour which will ultimately see increased disclosure of the contents of a wine bottle.  My guess: it will be the progressives in the wine supply chain who will take this issue on, in their own way.  Further, I suspect the retailers – who have the most direct relationship with the consumer – will be at the vanguard.

Interesting stuff.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.