30 Second Wine Advisor: When blends break the law

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 When blends break the law
Wine enthusiasts often debate whether single-varietal wines or blends are better. In Oregon, regulators are taking a fresh look at long-standing rules that make many wine blends illegal.
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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 Wine Advisor 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 that, 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 News-Register: "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 Statesman-Journal, 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!


Article in the McMinnville News-Register, "OLCC accepts wine-labeling petition":

Story in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "OLCC considers relaxing wine rule":

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