Why Don’t the French Label Grape Varieties?
Wine Questions Answered
By Paul Howard
Q: I find it easy to match up my favourite New World wines with other New World wines because they clearly label the variety of grape they’re using – yet French wines rarely seem to do this. Why is that? Am I the only wine drinker who finds this infuriating?
James Duggan, Skipton
A: Old world wines from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are often labelled under strict wine laws governing geographical delimitation. This is based on the idea that different places will produce wines of different character and style. It attempts to ensure that the wine’s identity is legally protected and it offers drinkers a guaranteed provenance. This system works best when these places are well known.
For example, Chablis, Sancerre, Barolo and Sherry are famous, effectively being brands in themselves. That their wines are respectively made with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, nebbiolo or palomino grapes is secondary. However, this system rather arrogantly expects wine drinkers to know a great deal of wine lore and geography in advance and works poorly with obscurer areas.
“No one system is ideal”
Varietal labelling took hold in the new world partly because their wine regions were unknown and partly because their wine laws are less strict. This means more freedom to substitute grape names for places on labels and in consequence a handful of international grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and shiraz have become instantly recognisable.
In short, the grape has become the brand. However, this simplicity has drawbacks too. It doesn’t give any indication of place or style. It’s also unwieldy when blends or unfamilar grape varieties are used. We know of Port but what if that name was replaced with the 80 authorised grape varieties? Châteauneuf-du-Pape allows thirteen.
Champagne would lose its lustre if it was called Sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay/Pinot Meunier. Does a less familiar variety like Rkatsitelli entice or repel? Furthermore, under European law a bottle of wine may be labelled as a single variety yet contain up to 15% of other unmentioned varieties and this will have a considerable influence on style and taste. It is ironic that as new world wine areas establish their reputations so tighter laws and geographical origins are introduced to protect their unique points of difference. Equally, some old world regions are adapting their laws to allow varietal names. In short, no one system is ideal and at least some helpful producers use back labels to give useful information to address such shortcomings. If only more would!
Q: Is there any special reason why wine bottles in storage should be laid on their side?
Christopher Earl, Armley
A: The reason is that wine bottles are traditionally sealed with natural cork. Laying the bottle on its side means that the cork is kept in direct contact with the wine inside. This has the beneficial effect of keeping the cork moist, which helps prevent it shrinking, so maintaining a tight seal against air and spoilage. Whether similar benefits accrue with bottles sealed with newer forms of closure such as screwcaps is still unknown. In any case it is probably less important nowadays when relatively few wines are designed to be laid down for long periods. From a practical viewpoint you can usually store more bottles when laid on their side in a rack or a bin.