Time to declare sweetness levels in wine

How much information do consumers need to know about their wines? Robert Joseph argues that sugar levels, at the very least, should be declared.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Do you feel under-informed?

Jancis Robinson, as she made clear in a recent Financial Times piece, certainly feels that buyers of non-vintage Champagne deserve to given more information than some of the big houses are happy to share with them. Specifically, she believes that when any of us hands over a fairly significant sum for a bottle of fizz, we have the right to know when it was disgorged.

Without that date on the label, she argues, how are we to know if it arrived from Reims, Epernay or Ay last week and might benefit from being cellared for a while, or if it has already been gathering dust in a retailer’s or wholesaler’s warehouse for a year or longer?

This is not a new argument. More than 25 years ago, a number of big Champagne houses went through a particularly low chapter of their history in terms of consistency and quality. This was, in part, because of their strategy of buying wine from other producers sur latte and selling it as their own. This had little to do with disgorgement dates – the bought-in wine was given its dosage and disgorged along with the producer’s ‘own’ wines – but it certainly contributed to the variability of the final product. 

At the time, several writers, including Oz Clarke and myself, challenged the Champenois over this issue and their general lack of openness. Some of us were rewarded for our efforts by being struck off the invitation lists to annual tastings, but a few houses took a more positive attitude. Bollinger, in particular, drew up a charter that, among other things, precluded the purchase of wine sur latte. Bruno Paillard moved to printing disgorgement dates on its labels and, enterprisingly, Charles Heidsieck created an entirely new category of Champagne by transforming its non-vintage into ‘Mis-en-Cave’ whose labels revealed when each blend began the process of secondary fermentation. Krug and Roederer prefer customers to go to their websites to learn the background to their wines but, as Robinson says, many other houses still work on a ‘need to know’, or ‘ignorance is bliss’ basis when it comes to the provision of basic information

But surely Champagne disgorgement dates are the tip of the information iceberg? Why should the wine industry in general get away with not revealing the amount of residual sugar (RS) each bottle contains? I fully understand that perceived sweetness of any wine will depend on its acidity, and I’ve certainly under- and over-estimated RS levels, just as I’ve been wrong in my guess of a wine’s alcoholic strength. But at least the latter has to be printed on labels (albeit, with ludicrously wide margins for error in some countries).

In my experience, the wines in which reticence over RS levels has been most annoying often come from the Loire and Alsace. Unless you know the house style of a producer, the chances of getting an unexpectedly sweet Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer can be quite significant. There are also plenty of Vouvray producers who apparently see no need to warn customers that what they expect to be a Sec is in fact a Demi-Sec.

That’s just as true of the increasingly numerous and popular red blends from California and, most recently, Spain which routinely weigh in at anywhere from seven grams per litre to as much as 16.

Many wine purists frankly wish that these styles of wine didn’t exist. I have a more liberal attitude: if anyone happens to prefer a bit - or even a lot - of sweetness in their rosé, white, red or fizz, who am I to say they shouldn’t be allowed to have it? But why make encountering these wines a hit or miss experience both for them, and for those who don’t share their sweet tooth?

In Moldova, I recently discovered that local legislation obliges producers of sparkling wine to print RS levels on their labels. I would imagine that this requirement will form part of the European ingredient-listing laws that are currently under discussion and certainly due for implementation within the next five years. Whether the information will have to be be provided on back labels or on websites via a link remains to be seen. As does any rule regarding sparkling wine disgorging dates.

In an ideal world, we might not need this kind of thing to be the subject of legislation, but maybe the wine industry simply prefers to be told what to do by people with legal authority rather than pesky wine critics.

Robert Joseph

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