This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Apr. 23, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20070423.php.
What's on the label?
Gleaning information about what's inside a wine bottle from all the large and small print on the label is one of the more daunting elements in wine appreciation for many would-be wine enthusiasts, it seems. A surprising amount of my E-mail is devoted to wine-label questions, and our article, Wine Label Decoder, and our recent short video, How to Read a French Wine Label, are among the most popular downloads on WineLoversPage.com.
And yet, every now and then, you'll run into a bottle like today's featured wine in which the label is almost stunning in its simplicity, bearing only the most basic information about the wine.
How can this be? In most wine-producing countries, strict legal constraints precisely govern the information that a wine label must provide; but there's still plenty of room for creative flexibility.
In the U.S. for example, the federal Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), like its predecessor, the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, regulates the alcohol and tobacco industries and collects taxes on firearms and ammunition. That's an odd combination of industries indeed, but let's not go there.
TTB approves labels and monitors advertising in these businesses, and it regulates the labeling, marking, packaging and branding of all distilled spirits, wine and beer sold in the United States.
As you might imagine of a regulatory bureaucracy, its rules are framed in barely intelligible legalese and are complex to say the least. Moreover, much interpretation is left up to government clerks whose decisions sometimes bear a whiff of whim and caprice, particularly in approving wine labels that might be considered racy or irreverent.
(In perhaps the most famous related incident, the proprietors of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild declined to use its 1993 artist-designed label for sales in the U.S.; although the government actually approved the label - a pencil sketch of a reclining nude child by the artist Balthus - an uproar by pressure groups prompted Mouton to remove the label from the market for fear of controversy. The wine was sold in the U.S. with a plain label, although a considerable number of Balthus labels reached collectors through "gray market" sources.)
Controversial art aside, TTB spells out detailed requirements governing disclosure of information from the producer's name and location, grape varieties, geographical source of the grapes, percentage of alcohol and more, not to mention the legislatively mandated Surgeon General's warning and "contains sulfites" warnings. For a complete, clear outline of label requirements, the agency offers a detailed brochure (PDF format) online.
Note, however, that the Bureau doesn't specify, in most cases, whether the legally required information must be on the main label or an auxiliary back label or neck label. Indeed, the regulators don't seek to require that the "front label" be displayed on the front side of the bottle on the retailer's shelf. As discussed in the June 11, 2003 Wine Advisor, "Front or back?, it is entirely possible to display little more than an image and the name of the wine on the label that's intended to show, as long as all the legally required information appears in the legally mandated font sizes on the other side of the bottle.
So it is with today's wine, a simple Sangiovese di Toscana IGT from Tuscany, a delicious and affordable Chianti-style red from Tuscany. On the front label (pictured below in our Graphics Edition) there appears only a drawing of a Cupid figure, the geographical source of the wine in small print, and, in script, the wine's proprietary name, "Ali." Wine geeks or federal inspectors who wish to know more need simply turn the bottle around.
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Donna Laura 2004 "Ali" Sangiovese di Toscana ($9)
This is a dark ruby-color wine, with appealing scents of black and red cherries and warm spices. Juicy and tart, it's all about simple fresh-cherry fruit and zippy acidity in a nicely balanced package. Simple, low-end Sangiovese, on the modest side, but its good quality makes it a fair ringer for a decent Chianti. U.S. importer: Banville & Jones Wine Merchants, North Bergen, N.J. (April 9, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: This should go anywhere modest Chianti will take you, from pasta with meat sauce to pizza to red meat. It was excellent with leftover roast lamb reconstituted as a pasta ragù.
VALUE: A price tag under $10 makes this fruity, well-balanced Chianti lookalike an excellent value.
WHEN TO DRINK: It's more a drink-me-now wine than a cellar-keeper, and I wouldn't count on it evolving over the long haul; but it certainly boasts the fruit and balance to keep well for a year or several.
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