Varietal vs. Region
Jason Walsh is a UK writer who, according to his blog "Design of the Nation", takes on issues of design,
culture, politics and technology. I think that just about covers everything. Included in this bag of issues Mr. Walsh covers is, apparently, wine.
In a post today, Walsh offers an interesting notion: That including varietal information on a wine label (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc) as most of the New World wines do, equates to dumbing down wine and allows consumers to act sophisticated about wine by taking the easy road to wine understanding. Walsh writes:
"But is it (using regional identification a la "Bordeaux", "Medoc", etc.) any less comprehensible to the average, non-enthusiast consumer than the new world labelling by grape type? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying new world wine and anyone that says
there is, is nothing but a snob. However, there is no reason to
simplify European wine labelling – or indeed European wine."
What Mr. Walsh doesn’t seem to get is that the inclusion of varietal labeling is not a substitute to regional labeling, but rather an addition to regional labeling. He forgets that on every bottle of Argentinian Malbec or California Syrah there also exists an appellation such as "Mendoza" or "Russian River Valley."
So, if you are giving the consumer MORE information I think indeed the labels with less information are "less comprehensible"…by definition.
Walsh goes on to write:
"Reducing French wine to grape type labelling would be another triumph
for ignorant branding. Think about it: does the fact that a wine
labelled as being made from a grape that you’ve probably never even
seen really make it easier to understand and therefore buy? Why is this
a superior method of description and differentiation than region?"
Let me explain why it’s superior method description and differentiation.
Information is power because it allows you to grow as an intellectual being. For example, if I know I like Cabernet Sauvignon more than Cabernet Franc and I have a wine that is simply labeled "Bordeaux" but don’t like the wine, it might be interesting to know what exactly it was about the wine that I did not like before. Perhaps the wine was made primarily or completely with Cabernet Franc. But I don’t know that, because the label only says "Bordeaux".
The beauty of wine is that it is a beverage made in such an infinitely diverse set of ways that its drinking is also an intellectual exercise, and a fulfilling one at that too. The more information we have about a wine, the better we are able to reach down into our bank of experience and make decisions on what to drink or what to buy.
The problem with simple regional identifiers on a label is that it forces the consumer to investigate further the sometimes very arcane laws of regional wine laws. Put the varietal on the label along with the regional identifier and now the consumer has something to think about as they drink, rather than something to research as they drink.
Walsh concludes with this bit of….commentary:
"Could it simply be that with grape type labelling there is a bit less
work involved and it is therefore easier to sound knowledgeable and
sophisticated? Some wine critics have lauded simplified labelling as
some kind of triumph for democracy. Well, it’s a funny kind of
democracy where people are encouraged to be not only snobs, but also
I guess here I want to point out that by knowing the the varietal AND the region the wine drinker not only "sounds" more knowledgeable about the wine they have chosen to drink…but they ARE more knowledgeable about the wine they are drinking. There’s nothing ignorant about having more information at your disposal.
Let’s encourage all of the world’s winemakers to put BOTH varietal and region on the label.