WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

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WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Robin Garr » Wed Apr 25, 2007 3:05 pm

When blends break the law

Wine enthusiasts often debate whether single-varietal wines or blends of grape varieties are better. Maybe because I cut my wine-tasting teeth on Chianti and Bordeaux - both of which are traditional blends - I've never had much doubt about which side I'm on in this fight.

As I wrote in a <I>Wine Advisor</I> column back in October, 2001, "Vanilla ice cream is all right on its own, but it definitely benefits from a dollop of chocolate syrup. Lettuce, onion and tomato add interest to a hamburger, and a hot dog really needs mustard.

"Putting together compatible or complementary flavors adds interest and piquancy to just about anything we eat or drink. So think about <i>that</i>, the next time you uncork a bottle of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot."

"Single-varietal" wines became popular in the United States a generation or two ago, supplanting generic domestic wines called "Burgundy" and "Chablis." They were generally wines of much better quality than their mis-named predecessors, and this built a perception that wines made entirely from a single grape are somehow better than wines made from blends of more than one variety.

But that, as noted, is a subject for noisy debate. Burgundy is a single-varietal wine made from Pinot Noir for the reds and Chardonnay for the whites, and it's a wine of indisputable greatness. And no one here is going to bash top-end Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. But Bordeaux, to choose just one example, almost always contains a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, often Cabernet Franc, and occasionally Petit Verdot, Merlot and a few even less-familiar grapes. Chianti only recently changed the rules to permit 100 percent Sangiovese, but most traditional producers still blend Sangiovese, Canaiolo and even, now and then, a splash of white Malvasia Bianca or Trebbiano. And I still like chocolate sauce on my vanilla ice cream.

All this talk of "100 percent varietals," though, carries a statistical asterisk that refers us to a significant loophole. Although it's no secret, it's not widely discussed that "100 percent" is really only "75 percent" in most U.S. wine regions. Federal labeling regulations permit a wine to be labeled by the name of its primary grape variety as long as that variety makes up at least 75 percent of the wine. The rest may be any variety, and need not be disclosed.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows producers, at their discretion, to put a bit of "chocolate sauce" into the recipe without invoking the wrath of regulators. On the dark side, however, it also allows producers who care to do so to cut a corner by diluting an expensive variety with up to 25 percent of a less costly and presumably less desirable grape.

Alone among the states, Oregon has long enforced stricter laws that require at least 90 percent of a single variety for varietally labeled wines. These laws were written for the express purpose of ensuring "purity" in the state's wines, which are dominated by the Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay along with Pinot Gris.

But now, even Oregon, regulators are taking a fresh look at the state's old rules that have rendered many wine blends illegal. Historically, only seven Bordeaux varieties have been exempt from the 90 percent rule.

The debate appears to have set the state's two major wine regions against each other: In the Willamette Valley in the north, where the Pinots and Chardonnay wear the crown, 31 producers have petitioned to keep the 90 percent rule for all the state's wines, arguing that Oregon's stricter standard reassures consumers that Oregon wines are "pure."

But in Oregon's southern regions, closer to California and feeling competition from the Golden state, producers are calling for a more permissive standard to help them compete.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the rules, has opened a formal hearing process on a proposal to reduce the limit from 90 percent to 75 percent for 32 varieties in addition to the Bordeaux-type grapes. Willamette's Burgundian grapes and other cool-climate varieties would remain sacrosanct.

The battle, it seems, has only begun. Luisa Ponzi, of Willamette's Ponzi Vineyards and an organizer of the opposition to change, minced no words in an interview with Willamette's McMinnville <I>News-Register</i>: "This would confuse people. We've built a reputation based on 90 percent purity. We have a couple of exceptions, but if the rules change, there will be more exceptions than there are ones that comply."

Interviewd in the Salem <I>Statesman-Journal</i>, though, Southern Oregon producer Earl Jones, with Abacela Winery, said he's unable to make the best use of his 20 acres of Spanish Tempranillo grapes. To sell it as Tempranillo under current law, he'd have to put 90 percent in a blend. But, he said, "In Spain, Tempranillo is a 55 percent blend. I'd like to do what the Spanish do here in the States ... The Spanish figured it out 1,000 years ago."

Let the debate begin!

<B>WEB LINKS:</B>

Article in the McMinnville <I>News-Register</I>, "OLCC accepts wine-labeling petition":
http://www.newsregister.com/news/story.cfm?story_no=220899

Story in the Salem <I>Statesman-Journal</I>, "OLCC considers relaxing wine rule":
[url=http://159.54.226.83/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070423/BUSINESS/704230324/1040]http://159.54.226.83/apps/pbcs.dll/article?
AID=/20070423/BUSINESS/704230324/1040[/url]

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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Dave Chouiniere » Wed Apr 25, 2007 7:13 pm

I have very little experience with wine so my opinion on this subject may not be worth much. However, I have been trying many different types of wines including blends and single-varietals, and I can appreciate the differences of both.

I disagree with Luisa Ponzi's comment that "This would just confuse people." Half of the enjoyment of wine comes from the intellectual part of it: learning the different varietals, the appellations and how the regions (both foreign and local) make their wines. If Northern Oregon had a 90% rule and Southern Oregon didn’t, we would come to learn and appreciate the distinction. This is similar to the difference between Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone, where Syrah is the sole red grape of the North and the South consist of blends. We have come to love both.

Recently in California, the Lodi appellation has been divided into seven new appellations to help accommodate and differentiate between the differences of soil and climate in this vast 552,000 acres area. This will lead to more interesting and varied wines. As wine lovers, we will not be confused but better able to appreciate the wines from this region. (For more information see http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine ... ofile.html)

It would be a shame if the wineries in Southern Oregon couldn’t produce the blends they want. They wouldn’t be able to compete as well in their market and we as consumers would have less choice. Now that’s confusing!
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby michael dietrich » Wed Apr 25, 2007 8:39 pm

Well I am a retailer up here in Oregon. I have been in the wine business for more than 25 years between restaurants and retail. I think that it would give many of the wineries who do more Bordeaux and Rhone style wines more flexibility. These have traditions in blending. I would certainly keep Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris at the current 90% level. It will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out. I have not seen how the actual documents are worded.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Thu Apr 26, 2007 12:49 am

I would vote for allowing the 75% limit rather than the 90% one. My answer to Ms. Ponzi would be that wineries don't build their reputations on "purity". They build it on the style, flavor, and consistency of their wines. Changing the law to allow for more complex blending would do nothing to prevent these wineries from maintaining those characteristics. Wineries that wished to stick with the more restrictive standard would be free to do so. I can't imagine they'd be prevented from advertising this on their back labels (if not their front labels) and I'd imagine that any consumers who truly care about this would take the time to read the labels.

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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Michael Pronay » Thu Apr 26, 2007 5:52 am

Robin Garr wrote:Interviewd in the Salem <I>Statesman-Journal</i>, though, Southern Oregon producer Earl Jones, with Abacela Winery, said he's unable to make the best use of his 20 acres of Spanish Tempranillo grapes. To sell it as Tempranillo under current law, he'd have to put 90 percent in a blend. But, he said, "In Spain, Tempranillo is a 55 percent blend. I'd like to do what the Spanish do here in the States ... The Spanish figured it out 1,000 years ago."


That's plain wrong. EU labelling regulations say that a wine carrying a single varietal designation has to be at least 85% from that grape. Member states can set tighter rules, but not looser.

I have never heard of a 55% Tempranillo rule. It might apply for Rioja DOCa, but then Rioja is not labelled "Tempranillo".
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Steve Slatcher » Thu Apr 26, 2007 5:55 am

To a large extent I do not care what percentage legislation dictates can be sold as a varietal wine. But I do care about consumers being mislead - I'd like to see some sort of back label information with a more precise breakdown, or a generic "This wine may contain upto 25% of other varieties" warning.

Ultimately a wine stands or falls on how it tastes. There are great varietal wines, great blends, bad varietals and bad blends. Let wine makers do what they feel comfortable with according to market demands and/or tradition.

I do take issue a bit with the chocolate sauce and icecream anology. Chocolate sauce and icecream have markedly contrasting flavours. Any varietal differences are a LOT more subtle. Even experienced tasterss have difficulty in identifying varieties in wine. Blending may put in small amounts of chemicals that dfevelop into different flavours, but I think it woudl be difficult to argue that blended wines are generally more complex than varietals. Neither do I hold with the idea that varietals have a purer flavour than blends - though perhaps the grapes traditionally used in vaietal wines have a flavour that is purer in some sense (I am thinking mainly of Pinot Noir).

Blending does of course have practical advantages when dealing with certain varieties that are lacking in one or more obvious dimensions in wine - tannin, acid, fruit or whatever. But I think that is different to saying that blending adds complexity. They are also useful to hedge bets in marginal climates, which is I suspect the real reason they came to be used in areas like Bordeaux - the appreciation of the taste came later, and the blend became traditionally accepted.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Peter May » Thu Apr 26, 2007 10:57 am

I don't understand the title of this item. A blend that breaks the law would be, to my mind, an AoC Bordeaux with 20% Pinot Noir, or a Champagne with 10% Shiraz.

It wasn't a blend that was breaking the law, but a varietal wine that was breaking the law by having more than 25% of something else

To sell it as Tempranillo under current law, he'd have to put 90 percent in a blend. But, he said, "In Spain, Tempranillo is a 55 percent blend.


Why is this guy pretending to sell this as a varietal Tempranillo if it contains only 55%. No one is saying he can't sell the wine blend, just that it can't be labelled as a single varietal Tempranillo. Which it is not.

Sure the Spanish have blends with maybe 55% Tempranillo but they name them Rioja or something -- not as a single varietal Tempranillo.

Personally I think that a varietal wine should have a minimum of 95% of the name variety.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David M. Bueker » Thu Apr 26, 2007 1:09 pm

Where do I start?

The 90% is a great thing to brag about to the 723 people who actually care, and it reads well in a newspaper. From my experience I have run into 3 types of wine drinkers:

Casual Consumers - Don't care what the varietal percentages are as long as their white zin tastes the way it always has.

Enthusiasts - When they hear about the issue they will shrug, try their favorite wines and if something has changed in the taste then they will complain. If the wines are still what they expect, no problemo. (most folks on this site)

Detail eGobbers - Panic!!!! oh my gosh, does this have 91% tempranillo or 77% tempranillo???? I have to know or I can never enjoy the wine again. (many folks on another site)

In the grand scheme of things it's a silly argument that does nothing to differentiate Oregon wines except for the hopelessly overinformed.

As for law breaking and misunderstanding of European law I say whatever. Shrug.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Peter May » Thu Apr 26, 2007 1:46 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:Where do I start? .


I don't know, David. You seem to be saying that winemakers can put any variety name on their wine and it doesn't matter how much of that variety is in the bottle.

So, in your opinion, how much Tempranillo should a bottle labelled as Tempranillo contain? 85%, 75%, 51%, 1%, none?
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David M. Bueker » Thu Apr 26, 2007 1:58 pm

Peter May wrote:
David M. Bueker wrote:Where do I start? .


I don't know, David. You seem to be saying that winemakers can put any variety name on their wine and it doesn't matter how much of that variety is in the bottle.

So, in your opinion, how much Tempranillo should a bottle labelled as Tempranillo contain? 85%, 75%, 51%, 1%, none?


I don't really care. I am not concerned with the blend, as long as the wine does the job I expect it to do. I guess my only concern is that a tempranillo taste like it's made from tempranillo. I've had wines where the blend partner dominated the base (greater than 75%) variety. That does not generally work for me.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby James Roscoe » Thu Apr 26, 2007 1:58 pm

David, well put, shrug!
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby wnissen » Thu Apr 26, 2007 3:28 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:
Peter May wrote:
David M. Bueker wrote:Where do I start? .




So, in your opinion, how much Tempranillo should a bottle labelled as Tempranillo contain? 85%, 75%, 51%, 1%, none?


I don't really care. I am not concerned with the blend, as long as the wine does the job I expect it to do. I guess my only concern is that a tempranillo taste like it's made from tempranillo. I've had wines where the blend partner dominated the base (greater than 75%) variety. That does not generally work for me.

One I had was the Wente "riesling" with 23% gewurztraminer. Not a bad gewuerz, actually, crisper than most, but you'd never think you were tasting majority riesling. Clearly that sort of blend is not varietal...

I'd prefer a sliding scale that requires 90% for regular varietal labeling, then allows down to the current 75% if the significant ( > ~2%) percentages are listed, or just the words (as suggested above) "and X% other grapes" in small print under the variety. I don't want to cause unnecessary problems for winemakers, but 25% is a hole big enough to drive a truck of French colombard through a vat of "chardonnay."

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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Peter May » Thu Apr 26, 2007 3:40 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:
I don't really care. I am not concerned with the blend, as long as the wine does the job I expect it to do. I guess my only concern is that a tempranillo taste like it's made from tempranillo. I've had wines where the blend partner dominated the base (greater than 75%) variety. That does not generally work for me.


I cannot believe you are serious.

You blog on Riesling, so presumably you buy a wine labelled as Riesling because you like Riesling.

But what you are saying that, if the winery feels it makes marketing sense it can label anything as Riesling? Its got some Columbard it can't get rid of, no problem stick a label on it calling it Riesling....
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David M. Bueker » Thu Apr 26, 2007 3:56 pm

Peter May wrote:
David M. Bueker wrote:
I don't really care. I am not concerned with the blend, as long as the wine does the job I expect it to do. I guess my only concern is that a tempranillo taste like it's made from tempranillo. I've had wines where the blend partner dominated the base (greater than 75%) variety. That does not generally work for me.


I cannot believe you are serious.

You blog on Riesling, so presumably you buy a wine labelled as Riesling because you like Riesling.

But what you are saying that, if the winery feels it makes marketing sense it can label anything as Riesling? Its got some Columbard it can't get rid of, no problem stick a label on it calling it Riesling....


The chance that a producer I give a rat's you know what about will blend in Colombard is so infinitessimally small that I really don't care. What Fetzer (or Gallo, or their ilk) does means less than zero to me.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Steve Slatcher » Thu Apr 26, 2007 4:47 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:The chance that a producer I give a rat's you know what about will blend in Colombard is so infinitessimally small that I really don't care. What Fetzer (or Gallo, or their ilk) does means less than zero to me.

Riesling still has something of an image problem as it tries to differentiate itself from all the crap that used to be sold as Riesling sound-alike wines. I really cannot believe you want it to get another hammering from Fetzer et al selling Colombard as Riesling. It's fine if in the shorter term you like buying underpriced German wine, but personally I'd also like to be able to buy proper Riesling in decades to come.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David M. Bueker » Thu Apr 26, 2007 7:27 pm

I just really don't think any of this is headed in that direction. It's more like crying wolf to me.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Bob Henrick » Thu Apr 26, 2007 8:36 pm

Just throwing this out there Robin, but wouldn't a national law requiring full disclosure settle all this. If it is within the law to label a wine as chardonnay, and it must have 75% of that grape, then simply make it mandatory that the other 25% be labeled accurately. If the other 25% is Thompson seedless, than make them say so. Seems simple to me.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Gary Barlettano » Thu Apr 26, 2007 9:39 pm

Bob Henrick wrote:Just throwing this out there Robin, but wouldn't a national law requiring full disclosure settle all this. If it is within the law to label a wine as chardonnay, and it must have 75% of that grape, then simply make it mandatory that the other 25% be labeled accurately. If the other 25% is Thompson seedless, than make them say so. Seems simple to me.


I kinda agree with Bob here. Just put on the label what's in the bottle. Some people don't care and that's fine. But I do because I like to be able to guesstimate what an unknown wine might taste like (with the caveat that, even knowing every wine in a blend, that guesstimate might still be closer to a WAG than an analysis). With the variances between vintages and vineyards, stating exactly what goes into a blend isn't going to reveal any trade secrets because the juice changes from year to year and from place to place.

I think that some rules governing which variety or varieties can, should, must appear on a label are still important. We would otherwise be relegated into the realm of 100% proprietary names which would probably be a bigger mess for the average consumer than trying to learn the French AOC's. At least this way we have a 75% to 85% chance that what we see on the label more or less reflects what we find in the bottle.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David Creighton » Fri Apr 27, 2007 10:31 am

"This would confuse people. We've built a reputation based on 90 percent purity.


when i read about this in winebiz it was the first tme in my 35 years as a hobbyist and industry person that i'd heard about thier 90% rule. was i the only one to miss this 'reputation building' news?
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby David M. Bueker » Fri Apr 27, 2007 10:36 am

creightond wrote:"This would confuse people. We've built a reputation based on 90 percent purity.


when i read about this in winebiz it was the first tme in my 35 years as a hobbyist and industry person that i'd heard about thier 90% rule. was i the only one to miss this 'reputation building' news?


Nope. I didn't know they were different until I took an academic course in 2002.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby RichardAtkinson » Fri Apr 27, 2007 11:27 am

To blend or not to blend?

I have no preferences for whether or not a wine is blended or not. I judge my purchases on an entirely different set of values.

Other than to read the label and make note..either mentally or in an increasingly un-used wine database.

In the end...all that matters to me is..

1) Does it taste good?

2) Can I afford it?

3) What can I cook that will match this wine?

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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Paul B. » Fri Apr 27, 2007 11:29 am

steve.slatcher wrote:Riesling still has something of an image problem as it tries to differentiate itself from all the crap that used to be sold as Riesling sound-alike wines.

Very true - I've seen it first-hand: I once had a nice M-S-R Riesling on the table and one friend who wasn't wine-literate as such looked at the bottle from a distance and out came the words: "Blue Nun!"

Never mind that the bottle wasn't even blue, but brown ... :lol:

The inertia behind what you describe is indeed very strong.
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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Victorwine » Fri Apr 27, 2007 11:34 am

I can’t really see what all the hype is about. For a minute let’s put aside the regulations for actual percentages when declaring a wine a “single varietal”. What is actually meant by a wine produced from a single variety and what is ones definition of purity. Purity, the quality or state of being pure, absence of being mixed. For the most part I think it is safe to say that there are very few “single” varietal wines being produced. Even those wines which claim to be !00% single variatal are actually a blend (or a mixture) from a so called family of grapes or several clones of a variety. Selection (whether it was natural or human) was and will always play a role in the evolution of grape vines.

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Re: WineAdvisor: When blends break the law

Postby Isaac » Fri Apr 27, 2007 5:41 pm

steve.slatcher wrote:To a large extent I do not care what percentage legislation dictates can be sold as a varietal wine. But I do care about consumers being mislead - I'd like to see some sort of back label information with a more precise breakdown, or a generic "This wine may contain upto 25% of other varieties" warning.

Ultimately a wine stands or falls on how it tastes. There are great varietal wines, great blends, bad varietals and bad blends. Let wine makers do what they feel comfortable with according to market demands and/or tradition.

I do take issue a bit with the chocolate sauce and icecream anology. Chocolate sauce and icecream have markedly contrasting flavours. Any varietal differences are a LOT more subtle. Even experienced tasterss have difficulty in identifying varieties in wine. Blending may put in small amounts of chemicals that dfevelop into different flavours, but I think it woudl be difficult to argue that blended wines are generally more complex than varietals. Neither do I hold with the idea that varietals have a purer flavour than blends - though perhaps the grapes traditionally used in vaietal wines have a flavour that is purer in some sense (I am thinking mainly of Pinot Noir).

Blending does of course have practical advantages when dealing with certain varieties that are lacking in one or more obvious dimensions in wine - tannin, acid, fruit or whatever. But I think that is different to saying that blending adds complexity. They are also useful to hedge bets in marginal climates, which is I suspect the real reason they came to be used in areas like Bordeaux - the appreciation of the taste came later, and the blend became traditionally accepted.


The thing is, Steve, that they already can. What they can't do is lie about it, and tell people it's a Tempranillo if it's one third Marechal Foch. They can still make that blend, if they want to. The only limitation is in what they call it.
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