The Vexed Question of Varietal Labelling

The Vexed Question of Varietal Labelling

04 September 2017

Wine Wyse

Wine Labels are not just about looking pretty.

Choosing a bottle of wine from the shelves of your local wine store or supermarket is not always an easy task. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, then there’s no problem – provided it is in stock. But looking for something different, or an alternative to your tried and tested favourites can be something of a challenge. Certain clues as to the taste or quality can be picked up by close examination of the label, although even that is not always enough. Back labels can be helpful, so long as you discount the poetic stuff – “grown on sun-drenched hills, with a gentle breeze and aromas of new-mown hay in the air…..etc, etc”. But whether you will like what’s inside the bottle is another matter.

One of the difficulties with wine labels concerns what is called ‘varietal labelling’. This is where one of the most prominent features of the front label states the grape variety(ies) from which the wine is made. This to a large extent is a double-edged sword. I have mentioned elsewhere the phrase I often hear “I don’t like chardonnay, I much prefer a Chablis”. The latter is, of course, made from 100% Chardonnay, but this underlines the difficulty with varietal labelling. The person making the comment had sampled Chardonnay from the New World – stating ‘Chardonnay’ on the label - and had not enjoyed the experience, thus condemning in their eyes, all wines labelled Chardonnay.

Chablis normally does not state the grape variety on the label and thus the chardonnay hater would not be put off trying it. There is naturally a world of difference between different wines made from the same grape variety, and the only way to really know if you will like or dislike a wine is to taste it. But what is essential is to realise that not all chardonnays taste the same. This principle holds true for other grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc. An example from New Zealand may taste very different to Sancerre from France, which is also 100% Sauvignon Blanc.

There are different philosophies involved with varietal labelling. One school of thought considers that the grape variety, or varieties, are the most important factor for the would-be consumer to consider. Another believes that the area of production and the producer are factors which are the most important to the consumer, with the grape varieties used being secondary in terms of initial description.

This whole question is, however, complicated by a host of different factors. Reputation of the wine region, knowledge of the ‘brand’, legislation concerning wine producing areas, all have their part to play. From a historical perspective, wines produced in Europe have a far longer track record than those from the so-called New World regions, and thus have had a chance to establish themselves in terms of known characteristics of taste and quality. The New World wines are still evolving in this regard and thus have greater incentive to state the grape variety on the main label as guidance for the consumer.

As with all things, wine production continues to change and evolve and wine labels will naturally follow this evolution. The use of several grape varieties blended together, as happens in many top European wine producing areas, rather than a single varietal, is gaining momentum in the New World and this may well change the main label characteristics towards emphasis of region, producer and brand.