European Wine Regulations -- Part 1
Some American wine drinkers seem to imagine that wine production in Europe is highly controlled in a way that would be unimaginable here. There are certainly more regulations in Europe, but the reality is not very close to what people imagine it is. I have to laugh a little inside when I hear comments along these lines, because to allow one's limited understanding of political realities cloud our opinions about something so enjoyable as wine is to limit our own potential. Life is too short. Shedding a little light on how and why Europeans regulate wine production is in order. I'll try to cover a few topics in this new mini-series. (I promise I won't forget my other miniseries that are already in progress. ;)
|The Italian Version of the Two Main Tiers of Wine Characterization:|
Note that the old word "Controllata" Has been replaced with "Protetta"
Protected rather than Controlled. Seems more benign, yes?
What defines a wine being called "Bordeaux" is a combination of the grapes' zone of production--that is the location of the vines themselves--and the grapes that can be picked from to make the wine. Bordeaux wines are overwhelmingly blends of different grapes. The weather in Bordeaux has led winemakers there to become some of the world's greatest blenders, choosing the grapes according to ripeness and "phenolic maturity" (a fancy term for flavor intensity). These factors are very much affected by the weather throughout the growing season. One season's underripe Cabernet Sauvignon for example, might be compensated for with some exceptionally ripe Merlot that grew nearby. The grapes vary a lot in how they evolve on the vine, and good wine makers know how to make adjustments. The rules they play by?
|The Epitome of French Château-ness|
For Red Wines:
Merlot It's safe to say all Bordeaux reds have Merlot in them. Merlot is far and away the most widely grown grape in Bordeaux. (Keep in mind that Merlot grown in France does not produce the same types of wines as it does in say, California.)
Cabernet Sauvignon Considered by Americans to be the "important" grape because of its reputation, it is often more of a very effective blending grape for the more dominant Merlot in a great many Bordeaux wines.
Cabernet Franc This #3 grape plays a big role mainly on the right bank where it enhances their Merlot with unique characteristics.
Petit Verdot Fairly often used to add another dimension, though usually in very small percentages.
Malbec Known today as an Argentinean varietal wine, its origins in Bordeaux have become obscured by history. Nearby Cahors still grows a lot, and it is still tolerated in tiny amounts in the Bordeaux blend, though rarely ever mentioned.
The Bordeaux regulations? You can use any amount of any of these five grapes. The grapes must be grown in the wine region that appears on the label. Any picture of a structure used on the label must be a real image of the actual house, castle, or shack that you make your wine in. The word "Chateau" is defined as a place where grapes that you use are grown in adjoining vineyards, the wine is made on the premises, and people actually live there.
That's pretty much it.
Regulations regarding Grand Cru status have their own rules, but most are simply based on an existing list of properties that earned this status a long time ago. If your wine is simply labeled "Bordeaux" there is an amazing amount of freedom involved in its production. It's only when you start calling your wine by another more elite name--which would command a better price--that the restrictions become more, well restrictive. And those restrictions are largely matters of where the grapes are grown, and very little else. Yields and alcohol levels are mentioned but are easily met. The entire thing is really about consumer protection and "brand" identification.
If you see a Pauillac, you should be able to surmise approximately what kind of wine will be in that bottle. Otherwise, why would you spend the extra money on a Pauillac?
The complexity of wine regulation in France is mainly based on the fact that all of the many separate wine regions in France evolved on their own over centuries. So, each region today has its own set of regulations that often bear little resemblance to the other wine regions in France. Learning about all this involves a bewildering amount of memorization, so at first glance the whole system seems incredibly complex. If you think of each wine region as though it was a separate country, you would likely find that the wine regulations are fairly simple and straightforward.
I hope this discussion has provided a different perspective on this topic than you usually encounter. That is always my goal. Stay tuned for more on this later.
-- Marc Soucy, FWS CSWMarc Wine Blog