Transparency in wine

Today’s blog post is not about the color of wine but about more information on what is in your bottle (yes, it’s wine, I know) and how it’s made. This is a subject that’s been on my mind already for a while. But I got triggered by an article on Social Vignerons by Kelly Shepherd. She justly makes the point that wine labels are lacking important information for the consumer, such as the degree of sweetness of the wine and nutrition facts. I totally agree that there could be more information on a wine label so here’s a couple more suggestions of what wine makers could communicate about.

Let’s start with SO2 (sulphur dioxide), yes, the stuff of which you’ve been told it gives you headache. I’m not going to repeat the debate here about whether or not SO2 in wine gives you headache. Personally, I think alcohol is a logical first suspect if you want to find a culprit for your headache, but anyway, SO2 is not a substance that you should consume masses of either. So, wouldn’t it be logical if labels mentioned the amount of SO2 in a bottle? “Contains sulphites” is a mention that doesn’t help us much, because that just means that there is more than 10mg/l in your wine, which is almost always the case. And you need to be a real geek to know that the maximum level of SO2 in red wine, for example, is 150mg/l in Europe (350mg/ in the US!). And besides, knowing the maximum level doesn’t mean there is actually that much in your wine. So all we know is that there is between 10 and 150mg/l in a bottle of wine. Having more precise information is not only interesting for health conscious consumers. People with asthma can actually suffer an attack from too high levels of sulphites. Scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms of what exactly triggers such an attack and if SO2 in wine can directly cause one. But if I had asthma, I would like to know how much SO2 is in my wine, so I could at least be careful. By the way, organic wine does have lower SO2 levels, but there is still a margin between 0 and 100mg/l (for red wine).


Contains Sulphites – sure, but how much?

Sweetness : like Kelly Shepherd argued, it’s difficult to know how sweet a wine is. Actually, it’s sometimes difficult to know if a wine is sweet at all.  It wouldn’t be the first time that someone gave me a bottle of sweet white wine as a present, thinking it was dry… Take the case of a white Bordeaux Supérieur. In almost all parts of the world the word “supérieur” refers to higher alcohol levels or perhaps longer ageing. In the case of a Bordeaux Supérieur, it means that the wine is sweet… In Jurançon (South-West France) it’s even more complicated : if the label doesn’t explicitly mention that it is dry, then it is sweet… If that’s not confusing?


If the label doesn’t mention it’s dry, then it’s sweet!

Even for wines that are technically “dry”, it can still be interesting to have an indication of how dry. The sensory threshold of sugar in wine depends a bit on your sensitivity, but in general it’s around 3g/l that you can start to have an impression of roundness in the wine. Not unimportant when you’re drinking red wine from Valpolicella, Italy, for example. Sugar levels of around 5-6g/l are no exceptions there. And believe me, you will taste the difference. For many people 6g/l in red is already too high. They might perhaps not be able to tell you why they don’t like the wine, but if they say that the wine is too round or too jammy. It’s the sugar!

In regions where they make a lot of sweet wine, such as Alsace in France or the Mosel in Germany, it can be notoriously difficult to find out whether your wine will be sweet, medium sweet or dry. Especially in Germany where categories such as “Kabinett” don’t tell you much unless you know your way around German wine. In the Alsace region several producers started using  a scale of sweetness on the label, indicating where the wine is situated on that scale. Domaine Kientzler does a good job here adding the “indice de sucrosité“.

Champagne is another such example of where dry and dry can be two different things. In principle when the bottle mentions “Brut”, it should be dry. But the maximum sugar level for “Brut” being at 12g/l, you can be sure that you will taste the difference between a Champagne that’s at 6g and one that is at 12g… Again, no way of knowing when you’re buying a bottle unless it’s explicitly mentioned on the label.


An example of good practice by Dhondt-Grellet in Champagne

And while we’re in Champagne, let’s also talk about dégorgement, or the disgorgement. That is the process of taking the lees (dead yeast cells) out of the bottle before the liqueur de tirage is added, to bring the champagne to the desired level of sweetness, and the final cork is put on. As long as the disgorgement did not happen, the wine will continue to evolve. The effect of the time spent on the lees is more complexity and aromas of toasted bread, yeast, patisserie, brioche, those beautiful aromas that are so typical for champagne. In principle, once the champagne is bottled, the wine will not evolve anymore. Some argue that top champagnes still need a couple of years cellaring before you drink it, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. So what does this mean? That you better drink your champagne (or any sparkling wine for that matter) as soon as possible after the disgorgement, especially if you cannot store it in good conditions (dark and cool). The question of course is : how do you know when the champagne was bottled?! Some mention the date of disgorgement on the label, but the vast majority doesn’t. So if you see a bottle of champagne in your local supermarket, there’s really no way of knowing for how long it’s been standing there in the daylight, at room temperature. In the worst case your champagne will taste of brown apples, which means it’s oxidized. Quite unfortunate if you spent 30€ for a bottle, isn’t it?

I could go on about things that are useful and interesting information for us but that are lacking on the label or the technical sheet, but I’ll stop here. My point is that more transparency in wine and how it’s made would be a good thing for the consumer. I’m aware, though, of potential pitfalls : wine makers’ core business is making wine, not communication. Especially small producers will probably shrug their shoulders when you ask them about more information on the label. And then there is also the question of technicality : how to make sure that the information they provide is also understood by the consumer. Valuable points, for sure. But I think that such things evolve. Once everyone expects certain things to be on the label or a technical sheet, then more and more wine makers will start providing that information. And the more information is provided, the more consumers will become aware of the significance of it and why they might want to know all that stuff. If you now see the caloric value of a biscuit on its label, chances are high that you will be able to judge if that is a lot or not in comparison with other food. And then, it’s up to you if you want to eat it or not. Because you can make an informed decision. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same with a bottle of wine?

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