We start the penultimate week of entries to our wine writing competition with the following two articles from Brinton Resto, a 28-year-old legal professional.
Brinton Resto is currently working his way through the WSET programme and received a pass with distinction on the Level two exam. Brinton plans on fusing his passion for wine with his legal endeavours. He focuses on the interaction between wine and law. He recently received a Wine and Law Diploma from the University of Reims. Brinton has a special place in his heart for Barolo, bargain Bordeaux, and Italian white wines.
DO WINE REGULATIONS PRESERVE TRADITION AND TYPICITY FOR CONSUMERS?
Studying law is usually a boring affair, but it’s slightly more exciting after you’ve had a few flutes of Dom Perignon and your professor is questioning the celibacy of the wine’s namesake in front of his sculptural likeness at the Abbey of Hautvillers.
I was in Reims for a ten-day wine and law programme (group pictured above). Towards the end of the programme, three lawyers from Australia, Greece and the United States formed a panel discussion at the University of Reims to discuss the virtues of wine regulations in the Old World vis-à-vis the New World. The debate was cast in terms of whether producers and consumers benefited from regulations affecting how wine is produced, labelled and sold. At the most liberal end of the regulatory spectrum were Australia and the United States. At the other end was the European Union, France, tradition and rigid classification systems.
One of the lawyers, playing devil’s advocate, questioned whether geographical indications in Australia meant anything at all. A wine labelled '2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra' might actually refer to something that is only 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, only 85% produced from grapes harvested in 2007, and only 85% from grapes grown in the Coonawarra region. Accordingly, he pointed out, it’s theoretically possible that only 55% of the wine is actually 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra (a notoriously large, all-encompassing geographical indication to begin with).
'So when you’re buying a bottle of wine, don’t you want to make sure that the label matches what’s in the bottle? Consumers expect ‘beef’ to be 100% beef, not 15% horsemeat. Why is wine different?'
In subsequent discussion, virtually everyone agreed (1) nobody wanted to eat Seabiscuit, and (2) truth-in-labelling was kind of an important goal of protecting consumers from deceptive marketing practices. An 85% per cent minimum is a good start, but hardly sufficient to account for the notion of typicity – the idea that a wine should exhibit characteristics that are essential to the wine’s place of origin. Geographical indications are protected under EU law and underpinned by notions of typicity. But this begs the question: do more rigid regulations necessarily preserve a certain style of winemaking in a manner that meaningfully fixes its identity for producers and consumers?
Our discussion moved across the spectrum to the more complicated history of Italy, where regulations that aim at preserving quality and tradition within a region seem to, ironically, continually spur novelty, rebellion and luxury wine brands that thrive under an IGT rather than a DOCG. A consumer’s ability to recognise the label of an iconic Super-Tuscan stands for the proposition that producers in a well-regulated wine region can make a name for themselves by ditching DOCG specifications. Today, consumers routinely place their bets on these extraordinary wines precisely because they exhibit features that are unique to their place, style and terroir, notwithstanding the fact that none of them is blessed with DOCG status (except Sassicaia, which was granted its own DOC in 1994).
On the other hand, even where Italian producers have observed DOCG regulations, the producer’s discretion in the cellar can create an identity crisis and ideological civil war within a wine region (eg Barolo). While the use of new French oak barriques in Barolo was certainly controversial, its use has always been perfectly legal. Further, even the staunchest defender of ‘traditional Barolo’ would have to concede that, historically, Barolo was often blended and dominated by négociants.
All this led to the question of whether legal regimes can safeguard typicity. For example, when a legal regime takes it upon itself to define where exactly Cannubi should be demarcated, or restricts the number of crus that can be on a label, do these regulations really work to safeguard the consumer’s expectations when the identity of the wine is already in flux? Is the recipe for Chianti somehow less authentic now that white grape varieties are no longer mandated, as they were up until 1996? Would a savvy purchaser of top-dollar Barolo really be confused at the sight of multiple vineyard names on a bottle of Barolo? Labels such as those on Paolo Scavino’s 'Carobric' bottling have long paid tribute to each cru on the label (Cannubi, Rocche dell'Annunziata, Bric del Fiasc) without naming a single-vineyard. But should other producers have to resort to such amalgamations in the future to tell consumers that the wine comes from more than one vineyard?
Even in France, there seems to be no guarantee that the strictest classification system in the world can preserve typicity. Critical influence has a global reach. So does global warming. The 2003 Bordeaux vintage highlights how global warming and critical influence can overshadow tradition and typicity even in one of the most rigidly classified wine regions on the planet. For consumers who want the most for their money, the growth-based classification system has always been viewed with a bit of scepticism. If we’re being honest with ourselves, doesn’t a ‘fifth growth’ such as Lynch Bages often compete with ‘second growth’ Cos d’Estournel or Léoville Las Cases in terms of delivering quintessential Bordeaux? Can owners of châteaux really take offence to the raised eyebrow that follows when they take part in promoting the classification of their own wineries?
To be sure, nobody wants their Brunello to be secretly adulterated with international varieties. Consumers expect a product to retain its identity so they can purchase roughly the same product year in and year out. But, all the same, do we want regulatory regimes to be the ones who get to write the recipes and draw the maps? It’s one thing for me to say 'I like how this wine is made, I think this producer has nearly perfected the experiment of winemaking, I would be happy if this producer continued to produce wines like this, and I will continue to support this producer’s philosophy by buying her wines.' It’s an entirely different thing for a legal regime to say, 'We like how this wine is made, therefore history is over, we’ve arrived at the end of the experiment, here’s the line, if you’re not within the boundary, you don’t count, here’s the recipe for this wine, this is how this type of wine shall be made from now on.’ Wouldn’t an imposition of that sort signal the end of the historical process that led to that conclusion?
Don’t get me wrong, tasting mature, ‘traditional’ wine from a bygone era is a truly magical experience that seems to defy time. But we only appreciate these experiences and historical differences in winemaking precisely because nobody pressed the pause button on the march of history, and people have ‘traditionally’ had a chance to give tradition a run for its money.
WHY IS ITALY'S SECOND MOST PLANTED GRAPE VARIETY SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED?
Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted grape variety. While it can be overproduced and less than spectacular in certain regions, it enjoys perennial success in Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. The same cannot be said of Italy’s second most planted grape variety, Trebbiano. With the exception of its role in Vin Santo, and a cult following of the late Eduardo Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano seems to enjoy only perpetual contempt and disdain as an overproduced grape variety lacking perfume. France uses Trebbiano to produce brandy, where the grape is known as Ugni Blanc. Based on some recent tastings of this grape variety, I hope it receives a much-needed upgrade in status, because it is certainly capable of producing remarkable Italian white wines with ageing potential.
Trebbiano faces an uphill battle. Even producers who sell Trebbiano-based wines seem trapped by its reputation, and acknowledge its shortcomings in marketing their wines. Virtually everyone acknowledges that Trebbiano lacks a pronounced perfume. Very well. But couldn’t we say the same of the ever-fashionable and commercially successful Chardonnay? If you take away the oak and malolactic fermentation, Chardonnay reveals itself as a very low-key grape variety. While both Trebbiano and Chardonnay share this common characteristic, only the former seems to be regarded as essentially less expressive. Still, a good Chablis can showcase the purer virtues of Chardonnay through focused, brisk wines with electrifying acidity that are ultimately soil-driven expressions of climate rather than products of the cellar. I thoroughly enjoy the many expressions of Chardonnay offered throughout the world, but I regret that Chardonnay has found its way into virtually every corner of Italy because Italy has always been blessed with a wide variety of native grape varieties. Thankfully, Italian producers and global consumers are fostering a trend of returning to native varieties.
I recently enjoyed a white Italian blend from the Marche, the 2012 Telusiano from Rio Maggio. Granted, the wine was only 40% Trebbiano, with the remaining balance of 30% Pecorino and 30% Passerina. Still, what I found remarkable about this wine was its understated expression of terroir and its structure. The wine had a full texture without seeming sappy, it was decidedly dry, albeit marked by a touch of heat. In some ways, Telusiano reminded me of the orange wines made by Lazio-based nuns at the Monastero Suore Cistercensi that utilise skin contact to lend a deeper colour to white wines. The colour of the Telusiano advanced towards golden yellow, but based on the aromatics, this seemed to be more the result of extended skin contact than a sign of oxidation or decline. The production notes for Telusiano indicate the wine sits ‘on the lees', but even the 2013 vintage shows a deeper yellow colour without any signs of fading fruit one would expect if the wine was destined to be short lived. The nose was a clean offering of baked apple, golden pear, and a quintessential Italian herbal note.
While I’ve longed enjoyed wines from Friuili, Trentino, Alto Adige, southern Italian white varieties, single-vineyard Soave, Gavi, Sicilian whites, and some orange wines, I never bothered to give Trebbiano-based wines from the Marche much attention. I’ve since changed my ways and I only regret not having started sooner.