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Defining Wine

I read two pieces recently that have summed up what I have been thinking about for a while now. What is ‘wine’? Wine made from grapes that is, and not parsnips or elderflower (no matter how delectable they may be). How do you classify it a ‘wine’ – does it have to contain a set amount of alcohol, a certain abv? Is wine still ‘wine’ at 18% abv? Does it have to be made in the country of origin, or not? Does it have to be made of grapes grown in the country it is made in? Can we call it a ‘wine’ if it is made from rehydrated grape must or if it contains flavourings?

The New York Times ran an article ‘When Is a Wine Not a Wine? When European Regulations Say It’s Not’ which was about the Chapel Down Winery which “crushed more than two tons of refrigerated Malbec grapes that had been air-freighted from Mendoza, Argentina, hoping to produce an English take on the fabled Latin American wine.” However Chapel Down fell foul of EU regulations and are not allowed to sell the wine labelled as ‘wine’ but as ‘ fruit-based alcoholic beverage’.

The fruit was brought here, in the lush, gentle countryside of Kent, to an estate covering 68 acres, or 28 hectares, one third of which is now covered with vines. In the winery, the juice was processed, using English equipment and techniques, and then aged for nine months in American oak barrels.

Only when it came time to bottle did Frazer Thompson, chief executive of Chapel Down, learn from officials that he had breached regulations that ban the use of grapes or grape products from outside the European Union to make wine inside it.

The rule is intended to maintain the integrity and quality of wine and, for example, prevent producers from importing large quantities of must, or grape juice, from warmer climes and blending it with European grapes.”

Being a fan of Bordeaux my opinion is that wine should be made at the winery or chateau that grew the grapes – to me wine is as much a product of its terroir as the wine maker. I am aware that many people don’t share that view and consider it to be old fashioned but as a gardener – and living amidst old perry and cider orchards – I am aware that the same crop grown on different land can produce a difference in taste due to the different micro climate and soil. When you buy a bottle of wine you are not just buying a liquid, you are buying a heritage. You are buying the grape, the soil it grew in, the sunshine and rain that swelled the grape, the men and women who made it, the cellars that aged it – all that rolled into one glass.

A guest post on Vim’s excellent and irreverent 12×75.com by Andrea Kirkby entitled The Future of Wine reaffirmed my thoughts. Andrea commented on the Future of Wine Report written in 2008 by a team from Berry Bros, & Rudd which made predictions for the year 2058:

Big brand booze’ has already beme something quite different from the refined world of the grands crus and that difference is set to widen.

Supermarkets rather than chateaux will ‘own’ many of the biggest brands, and we’re likely to see moves such as multi-country sourcing of grapes, genetically modified vines, and even artificial flavourings (that wine snob who says ‘I’m getting Opal Fruits’ might well be right – except that they’re called Starbursts nowadays!).

That’s a long way from the values of terroir espoused by the great French vineyards; French wine growers would have a fit at the idea of hydroponically grown vines. And I can’t see Chateau d’Yquem or Mouton-Rothschild adopting the tetrapak as Berry Bros thinks the bulk wine makers will (though they’re being proven right – you can already get sangria in a tetrapak in Spanish supermarkets).

The emergence of these trends in the wine market will make it ever more polarised between bulk wine and fine wine . . . “

Can wine be classified ‘wine’ if it has flavourings added to it? You may think that Andrea is being flippant when she mentions Opal Fruits but she might be right. Back in 2003 Michael Fridjhon, the renowned South African wine writer wrote that flavourings were being used to give the characteristic green pepper nose to cheap South African Sauvignon Blancs, that blackcurrant flavouring was used in Cabernet Sauvignon and butterscotch in Chardonnay. It’s been known for a while that some wineries add plum for Merlot as well as gooseberry for Sauvignon Blanc. If it becomes common practice and regulations change to incorporate it wouldn’t it make sense to insist that wineries have to put it on the label? Would you define Chardonnay and Butterscotch Wine as ‘wine’ as we know it?

For me defining wine is simple: I don’t want to have to do so. I don’t want to look down into my glass and wonder what it is.

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