Wine Labelling: The Argument in a Nutshell – Part One

by blog on June 15, 2018

The hoary chestnut roasting on today’s open fire is the thorny thicket of labelling.

Part of me fantasises about serving the überinterventionist winemaker with the lengthiest of self-inflicted writs –that they must stick (or swathe) a gigantic label detailing their 100 plus additives on every bottle of wine and then discover whether people still want to pour its contents down their gullet. The other part of me believes that labels are essentially meaningless, providing undifferentiated lists rather than qualitative information. And how much information is too much?  Does one itemise the yeasts and enzymes in a wine on the back label? Is acidification an additive or a wine making technique?

Will all winemakers have to declare everything? Will not the ones who put nothing on their labels become guerrilla winemakers, the champions of natural wine? Real winemakers are, after all, vignerons, not lab technicians. Should we trust any governing body to administer a labelling system sympathetically? We’ve seen, for instance, how consumer acceptance panels in South Africa have refused to give export accreditation to low sulphur wines, thereby arrogating to themselves disproportionate power about what constitutes physiological correctness in wine, what is an example of terroir and what customers in other countries might themselves judge to be good or bad. For the grower it is about the right to export the fruits of his or her labour; for the panel the label becomes a badge of discrimination. Ironically, these judgements throttle the initiative of people who might very well be the best flag-bearers for their region and country.

Part of me fantasises about serving the überinterventionist winemaker with the lengthiest of self-inflicted writs –that they must stick (or swathe) a gigantic label detailing their 100 plus additives on every bottle of wine and then discover whether people still want to pour its contents down their gullet.

So discriminatory labelling creates extreme burdens of proof for the grower (akin to trying to prove a negative), whilst presupposing that those issuing certification have a clue what they are doing. It is nigh impossible for the arbiters to be arbitrary and agenda driven, precisely because many of the so-called objective criteria are, in fact, subjective. For example, we have had wines impounded because they were cloudy and deemed therefore not fit for purpose – to coin a cliché – and other wines held in other countries because they were considered atypical. Since when is this a valid reason? This is the same nature of judgement that decrees a pock-marked apple not suitable for the shelves of a supermarket. Slight imperfections signify character, denatured products are identical. Oh brave new world that insists on bland homogeneity!

Should we trust any governing body to administer a labelling system sympathetically?

The desire to warn against a product that may not be usual invites conformism. My comrade rival would ultimately have us label natural wines: “Contains sulphides, may contain high levels of VA or Bret.” I might label his or her wines: “Contains arguably no terroir expression whatsoever as well as unnecessarily high and discernible levels of sulphur dioxide.” Are we warning against possible faultiness, bad flavour, and lack of flavour or trying to describe what the wine is all about.

One of the reasons why people support labelling is that they want to warn us off the wines that they don’t like drinking.

Liable Was I Ere I Saw Labels

Play Mystification For Me

“A name is a label, and as soon as there is a label, the ideas disappear and out comes label-worship and label-bashing, and instead of living by a theme of ideas, people begin dying for labels…and the last thing the world needs is another religion.” –Richard Bach

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office….

Ridge Winery were one of the first to append expansive bells-and-whistles labels to their wines. The educative motivation is commendable, a voluntary gesture revealing a desire to communicate clearly how their wines are made. However, I would not like to see this unilateral action translated into a mandatory code. Choosing to elaborate is mighty fine, but there should be no requirement to explain, for the information on labels is always open to interpretation and consequently to abuse. Buying is inevitably a leap of faith, expository label or no label at all; the wine, not the medium, should be the message.

The arguments in favour of certification in general and labelling specifically, revolve around the notion that the dissemination of verifiably accurate information acts as a bulwark against misrepresentation. This sounds reasonable yet often results in the victimisation of innocents rather than the institutional abusers. How often have we heard it said: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, a formulation that contrives to be both wishy-washy and sinister at the same time? The presumption of guilt tied to non-disclosure of information is the excuse used by governments to invade the privacy of their citizens and to strip them of fundamental liberties. These hundreds of little laws that set the actions of the individuals against certain arbitrary targets are nominally intended to protect the rights of the many (the many consumers). How true is that and what is the trade off?

Natural wine has hitherto entirely eluded the majority of critics and commentators because it is more to do with philosophy and a spirit of endeavour than a precise enumerable approach.

Wine is arguably too complex for pettifogging labels to make any real sense. In the first instance it is actually quite difficult to define. Those who would do so might say that wine is the net result of a combination of chemical, microbiological and physical reactions – which is no more the whole truth than to say that human beings are related to clouds because we are 60% water, or that since we share 50% of the same DNA as bananas, we must be partly bananas. Although some bureaucrats may be totally bananas. The truth in wine is rarely pure and never simple and these mechanistic classifications are necessarily limited, especially if you are trying to arrive at a catch-all definition. Natural wine has hitherto entirely eluded the majority of critics and commentators because it is more to do with philosophy and a spirit of endeavour than a precise enumerable approach.

Artisan vignerons who produce no-nonsense additive-free wines don’t use labels or certification to prove a commercial point about their wines. The proof is in the tasting. The loaf of bread you buy from the specialist baker, the unpasteurised cheese from the farmhouse – these are unlabelled products which undergo similar natural transformational processes as wine, yet wine is always perceived as a product which requires written evidence stamped on certificate to prove that substances are not added, and a natural wine can only exist per se if there is real evidence of absence of additives present. Absence seemingly requires a significant burden of proof. Any society that needs these disclaimers perhaps has too many lawyers and law-makers!

This is assuming a kind of natural absolutism when the positions are actually far more nuanced. Take sulphites. Most critics mistakenly believe that natural winemakers and supporters are unshakeably opposed to the use of any sulphur in winemaking and, moreover, that it is an article of faith, and that this issue is the be-all and end-all of natural wine. Even the most fervid of natural wine proponents would never claim this, but we see here that the very lack of a definition is used as a straw stick to beat the natural growers with. So the question is –to admit that natural is a loaded term, proscribe its use, or only apply it to winemakers who use zero sulphur, or, find another term that is more encompassing as if some pithy semantic formulation can truly circumscribe a relative and shifting concept.

The truth in wine is rarely pure and never simple and these mechanistic classifications are necessarily limited, especially if you are trying to arrive at a catch-all definition.

Parenthetically, you can actually make a wine with zero sulphur using chemical techniques – should you so desire. Since it is not natural to process wine in such a fashion, ergo a wine with sulphur stripped from may not be classified as a “natural wine.” Which is an unlikely way of proving that natural wine is not all about zero-sulphur!

One oft-rehearsed argument goes that the reason why wine needs a label is because we owe a duty of care to the end user (as the supermarkets call them) or the drinker (as we call them). Were you to ferment your grapes and put them in a jug or milk bottle and quaff it on your tod, you may call it natural till the cows come home, and no-one will give a hoot. If cows can give a hoot. Give a case of your best – or worst – peapod Burgundy to a friend – and still no-one is exercised. For the wine has not reached the stage of requiring a definition.

But selling creates contracts and contracts are governed by legal standards. Fermented grape juice becomes “wine”, wine is a product, products have consumers, and consumers theoretically require codified assurances that the product is what it claims to be. The product has to be measured and evaluated in order to see if it conforms to the norms of what that product should be. The commercial world turns and the red tape continues to spool.

Mystical references to society and its programs to help may warm the hearts of the gullible but what it really means is putting more power in the hands of bureaucrats.”

Labels may provide useful information or gobbledegook. As those ruminatively munching their impeccably-labelled Shergar-burgers will be aware, they may be an accurate guide to what you are consuming – or they may not be worth the paper they are printed on. People increasingly insist on proof of purity, they want evidence that nothing is added, and when something is added, they want the numbers. Yet the story from vine to glass can never be framed in a certificate.

For all the bureaucratic huffing and puffing, oddly, you only have to list one additive in wine and that is SO2 (which may be naturally occurring in the wine in any case) and then not even the quantity, or even whether it is added. And 10 mg is the same as 210 mg in this cock-eyed world where some growers are apparently more equal than others.

A more creditable system might conceivably demand proof of all the additives from vineyard to bottling, detailing each chemical spray used to the constituents of the fining agents. If we are going to drown in bureaucracy let it be in a comprehensive warm ocean rather than a cold cheerless bath tub. As one delves deeper into the issues though, the clearer the mud becomes. When is an additive an additive? What constitutes a trace amount and what in all this finical detailing is relevant to the consumer? Is naturally occurring sulphur more natural than added sulphur? Who determines that 9mg does not require the label to state “Contains Sulphites”, but 10 mg does? Detailing additives is one thing; it is quite another to determine which are manipulative (in the sense of radical aroma-flavour-and-texture changers) and which are intrinsically part of the normal winemaking process. There are some 100 potential additives and innumerable tweaking procedures – at what point are you describing process and at what point are you talking about elements that have been added to the grape must to change it materially? Would you detail the yeasts and enzymes used in the fermentation as ingredients added to the wine (and how about if they add flavour?); or acids used to correct the balance of the wine or clays or other substances to clarify it; perhaps one should even declare the type of fermenting vessel – steel, oak, cement – as it deeply influences the texture of the wine.

And back to sulphur – should we not have to differentiate between total sulphur, free sulphur and natural sulphur on the label? After all, you can never have too much interesting information. And this is nothing if not interesting. If all this arcane stuff matters, then why isn’t it being done; if it doesn’t matter then why are people hung up about the accuracy of wine labels.

To be continued in Part Two…

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