Wine Labeling Laws & Regulations: Do You Care?

published Jul 28, 2011
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Next week I am giving a seminar on the new European Union wine reforms and new wine labeling regulations. As I have been researching the subject I began to wonder how much this all matters to consumers. When you head out to buy a bottle of wine, does the official quality designation or quality symbol on the wine matter and does it influence your choice to buy or not to buy?

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The production and labeling of wine is highly regulated. Apart from being a product for human consumption wine is alcohol, and so its production and sale has to adhere to various national and international standards and regulations.

Aside from these important standards, each and every wine region has its own set of rules and regulations governing how it defines quality and the use of official designations on the label. In general the rules laid down in the New World are much more liberal than in the old world. For example, to label a wine as “2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon”, the rules say that 85% of the grapes must be Cabernet Sauvignon, 85% from Napa Valley and 95% from the 2009 vintage. There are no restrictions on what grapes to plant, how to cultivate the grapes or on winemaking techniques.

In many ways, the designation “Napa Valley” is really a geographic indication rather than any specific quality designation. But since we have become accustomed to the high quality of most Napa Valley wines, the designation has come to infer a certain high quality.

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In contrast, Old World quality designations are riddled with rules and regulations. Not only are designations delimited geographically, but each and every one comes with a package of rules, governing what grape varieties are authorized for the designation, how to cultivate them (yields, pruning, training etc.), winemaking and maturation techniques permitted, styles allowed etc.

For example, take Beaujolais in France, which has a number of different quality AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) designations.

The largest designated area is AOC Beaujolais. Within this area a smaller designation (and supposedly better) is AOC Beaujolais Villages with tighter restrictions. Even stricter rules apply within the ten ‘Cru’ designations AOC Beaujolais Cru (Brouilly, Morgan, St. Amour etc.).

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In France wines that sit outside official AOC delimited areas or wines that do not meet the AOC requirements are most often labeled as Vin de Pays. In the past Vin de Pays wines were considered ‘lesser’ quality as rules governing the designation are more liberal and flexible than those governing AOC designations regarding authorized grape varieties, yields, minimum vine age, etc.

The reality is not so black or white. Many pioneering, adventurous or maverick producers opt to label their wines Vin de Pays, not because they don’t meet the ‘quality’ standards of the AOC, but because they feel they can make a better wine by working outside the ‘strict’ rules. While few Burgundy or Bordeaux producers opt to abandon their valued AOC designation, there are many in the Languedoc and even the Rhone Valley who find the Vin de pays designation better suited to their goals.

While I am using France as an example, similar types of rules and restrictions apply to all European wine producing countries. Many of you know of the famous Super Tuscan wines in Italy (Tignanello, Sassacia, Ornellaia), wines labeled as ‘table wine’ (later upgraded to IGT – the Italian equivalent of Vin de Pays) because their producers felt that the DOC/DOCG rules at the time were too restrictive, preventing them from making the best wines possible. Similar stories prevail in Spain and across Europe.

The purpose of this post is not to thrash traditional Old World (or any) quality designation system but to highlight their place and what they mean. In the Old World these quality designation helped tremendously control quality and raise wine standards over the past 50 years. While they remain general standards for quality, the ultimate quality of a wine is far more complex than simply adhering to a set of production rules.

To simplify, or to further complicate matters (depending on your viewpoint), the EU has issued new regulations to harmonize quality designations and labeling across Europe. As the new harmonized terms are still optional on labels, it is likely that most European wine regions will continue to label as before using their own national proprietary systems for the foreseeable future. But watch the space.

I am keenly interested in hearing from readers on the importance you place on wine label quality or geographic designations and indications, when choosing wine.

Until next week enjoy some great summer wines.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Mary Gorman)