Wine labels and what they're not telling you
When is a New Zealand wine an Australian wine? When it says so in small print on the back label.
Kiwi consumers were brought face to face with that uncomfortable truth via a recent report in TVNZ's consumer advocacy show, Fair Go. Inside bottles bearing brands we think of as being as Kiwi as Richie's stubble (eg Shingle Peak, Timara, White Cliff), are wines that are in fact born and bred across the ditch. We're not talking about a blending component or two, but the entire contents of the bottle being 100 per cent Pure Australia.
There's no hint of this on the front label of these wines. In the case of Shingle Peak, along with the well-known, stylised mountain visual and the brand name, the label simply carries variety name and vintage. You're only made aware you are buying an Aussie wine if you turn it around and carefully read the back label. Halfway down, beneath Shingle Peak's Marlborough address, it's there in 10-point type – WINE OF AUSTRALIA.
Producers (those willing to make statements) and New Zealand Winegrowers boss Philip Gregan are adamant such vinous cross-dressing is perfectly legit and not at all deceptive. Fair Go reported that the Commerce Commission wasn't so sure.
Although fallout has been limited, the Fair Go report was a factor in the calling of a meeting in Marlborough by a group of concerned producers. They have laid the groundwork for an association committed to making wine that is "100 per cent Pure Marlborough".
If all this is making you wonder what else a wine label might not be telling you, or is telling you in a barely audible whisper, you're right to be curious. Because not all the information offered on those few square centimetres of printed paper is as straightforward as you might think.
Something that surprises many people when they first learn of it is what is known in the industry as the "85 per cent rule". When the Wine Act 2003 was passed, one of its aims was to "provide for the setting of standards for identity, truthfulness in labelling and safety in wine". To that end, the act stipulated that "wine label statements about grape variety, vintage or area of production must be at least 85 per cent from that variety, vintage or area".
So yes, that pinot noir you bought, prominently displaying Marlborough as its region of provenance, may in fact owe 15 per cent of its make-up to Central Otago. Employing such a blending option is not uncommon and can change a wine markedly. In cases like the example I've used, it makes something of a mockery of the varying regional nuances we often talk about in regard to Kiwi pinot.
Similarly, if you've ever wondered about the variation in flavours you're getting from different examples of pinot gris, the 85 per cent rule is probably a factor. Pinot gris is not the most demonstrative of varieties. The addition of something more extroverted, like gewurztraminer, is not unusual and often transformative.
With label-declared blends like those of the Bordeaux varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.), the 85 per cent rule is obviously not relevant. What is worth knowing with these wines is that the order in which the varieties appear on the label is the descending order of their prominence in the blend. So a wine labelled "Merlot Malbec" will always have a greater proportion of merlot to malbec.
Importantly, the 85 per cent rule can't be applied separately to a wine's grape variety, vintage and region. Slicing and dicing in that way could give you, in theory, a Marlborough sauvignon blanc 2016 that is only 55 per cent true to that description. I'm assured by New Zealand Winegrowers that a wine calling itself Marlborough sauvignon blanc 2016 must contain a minimum of 85 per cent sauvignon blanc from Marlborough that was harvested in 2016.
Of course, not every producer is out to give you an 85 per cent wine experience. For the quality-driven part of the market, varietal purity and using only estate-grown grapes are everything. And there are a number of collectives around the country which have a "100 per cent local" mantra. For example, Central Otago's pinot promotion arm (COPNL) insists its members only show wines made wholly from local fruit at COPNL events.
If you see the statement "Wine of New Zealand" anywhere on a bottle, it does mean what it says. Every grape that has been used to make it must have been ripened under the sun of Aotearoa.
There are no rules regarding the term "single vineyard", which is appearing on more and more of our labels. These words have a clear purpose – to tell the consumer he or she is drinking a wine made from grapes grown in a discrete vineyard, the name of which may also appear on the label. This is a European approach where the influence of place (encapsulated in the French term terroir) is put on a pedestal.
It would take an unscrupulous producer indeed to release a wine labelled "single vineyard" where a portion of fruit grown elsewhere has been used to make it. And while NZ Winegrowers have no regulatory deterrent in place, to market such a wine would be to contravene the Fair Trading Act.
An important number on every wine label is the beverage's alcohol level, always presented as a percentage. Here also, what you see is not always what you get. Our labelling laws allow the declared alcohol level to have a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 per cent, which is not an insignificant amount of wriggle room. By contrast, the EU tolerance is set at plus or minus 0.5 per cent.
Almost all wines are made with the aid of sulphur dioxide (S02), and have been for over 2000 years. It is used as a preservative, as it is in many other foods. Because of this, back labels carry the declaration "Contains Sulphites" or "Contains Preservative 220". What that doesn't tell you is precisely how much sulphur has been added, which isn't much help to the sulphur-sensitive set (sulphur is an allergen). As a rough guide: wines with lower acidity need more sulphur than high-acidity wines; red wines require less sulphur than whites; wines with high sugar content (eg dessert wines) need more sulphur; and European wines tend to have higher levels of sulphur than ours.
What a wine label doesn't tell you is actually quite a lot. Additives such as egg whites (used to clarify wine) get a label mention, but many others don't. Winemakers can add acid, enzymes and copper among other things, none of which have to be declared.
The back label is probably a good place to finish. There you often find a description of the wine that has been written by the winemaker or the marketing department. This is not mandatory reading. Phrases like "this wine should be enjoyed with friends" have no place on a wine bottle.