September 12, 2011

Fighting Varietal

    A varietal wine that is thought to be a step up from jug wine. May be vintage dated or not.  
We wine writers have two driving forces. First, we are consumer advocates. We strive to clear away the chaff and steer our readers toward better quality and better value wines. Secondly, and this is perhaps the more meaningful issue, we are fans. So when the industry decides to mislead the wine-buying public, we take it rather seriously. It's actually a pretty easy thing to do. For example, you can revive a dying brand by relabeling it as something else. You can even sell the same wine under several different labels or draw the public toward a mediocre wine by giving it a popular sounding name or trendy look.

Years ago, store shelves were littered with bottles labelled as chablis, "sauterne", champagne, burgundy, bordeaux, chianti, and many others -- bottles filled with low-end wines that might have come from anywhere on the planet and rarely bore even a superficial resemblance to the great European wines that rightfully owned those names.

When consumers became a little more sophisticated -- when they discovered that chablis from Grimsby was not of the same standard as chablis from Chablis  -- they simply put up with it or opted for the original. As the wine market continued to change and to become somewhat more consumer friendly, we saw a surge of varietally labelled wine. This happened originally at the higher end. Varietal naming was basically a good move. A fan of Sancerre who knew that Sancerre was sauvignon blanc could now seek out other sauvignon blancs to expand their appreciation of a favourite grape.

This did not go unnoticed by the jug wine makers. Many quickly switched their marketing strategy away from "generic" Old World names and instead emblazoned their bottle, jug and bag-in-box wines with grape names. Now here's the kicker: all chardonnay is not created equal. A barely acceptable wine that had perhaps been labelled “Canadian Chablis” might actually have contained some low-end chardonnay, so why not beef up the chardonnay component to the legal minimum (perhaps add the max of allowed water as well) and then top it up with any nondescript white wine? It's then perfectly legal to call that wine chardonnay, even though it might be as little as 75% chardonnay and perhaps even less.
Varietal labelling is no guarantee whatsoever of a quality wine, but it's not surprising to see low-end wines trying to carve out some respectability by latching on to varietal names. I'm less generous than your average wine consumer, and when I see a bottle of varietally labelled wine from a producer of low-end wines, I'm inclined to pass it by. Fighting varietal or not, my assumption (and I'm almost always right on this) is that it is old wine in new bottles, or boxes, and only the name has changed. 

While I'm on the topic of new labels, new names and general consumer mis-direction, I must say the latest crop of Canadian & International Blended wines coming  on offer at the LCBO are a particularly bad lot. Look for brand new company names that hide the fact that the wines come from just a handful of Canada’s largest wineries. Look also for new and enticing labels and wine names, expertly designed to hide the wine's origin: it could be from anywhere. Don't let the words "Product of Canada" fool you. And here's the worst part: these wines are often made from cheap imported wine that can cost as little as 25 cents a litre! Now please explain to me how you can "cellar" such a wine to the point that it merits a $12.95 price tag? I see authentic domestic (VQA) wines at $12 and even less, and imported "classed" wines in the same price range: always better wine and better value.

So when you're looking through the much-abused Ontario section, have a look at those prices. If you're looking for quality, typicity and, indeed, fairness, you're far better off with a VQA wine from Ontario. Almost any wine from Portugal or Spain or France or Italy is also a better choice. Many New World countries do not yet have the authenticity guarantees of appellation systems, but you will find gobs of quality coming out of Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Australia and New Zealand you probably already know about.

So buyer be warry. Check the fine print and always err on the side of authenticy … just my opinion.