Devil's Advocate - When is a Wine Not a Wine?

Supermarket shoppers are increasingly buying beverages in wine bottles that aren't legally wine. Robert Joseph wonders how much this matters.

Reading time: 3m 15s

19 Crimes - Wine - and Not-Wine
19 Crimes - Wine - and Not-Wine

“But you can’t call it wine”

That blunt response is thrown back at me every time I suggest that in future there will be a growing move towards producing high-volume beverages that may be based on fermented grape juice, but will also include other elements.

I expect to see this happening in the no-and low-alcohol sector where, as recent Wine Intelligence research reveals, taste and quality are often found wanting. But it will be just as relevant to higher strength examples.

Penfolds broke through this barrier with its Lot 518 Spirited Wine with Baijiu, produced for the Chinese market, as have the US, French and German companies that have been blending wine with fruits ranging from strawberry to grapefruit.

The latest example that caught my eye, however, was 19 Crimes The Deported Red Blend with Cold Brew Coffee that, as the point of sale text informed me, would be an appropriate ‘full bodied’ partner for both slow-roasted beef and tiramisu.

 

 

How many wines offer that kind of versatility? one might ask, in the expectation of being firmly told that the regulations, in Europe at least, are very clear. Anything described as ‘wine’ cannot include other ingredients, so the question is pointless.

But not being called wine doesn’t look like being a problem for The Deported, bottles of which happily stand on the shelves of Sainsbury, my local British supermarket, between two other 19 Crimes offerings – the ‘Red Wine’ and The Uprising Red Wine Part-Aged in Rum Barrels’.
 

Wine with caffeine

The bottles are the same size and shape and the labels are very similar. It is only when you take the trouble to read the small print on the back label of The Deported that you learn that it’s an ‘Aromatized Wine-Based Drink’, made from 97% Australian red wine and 3% coffee. And that it contains caffeine, as well as sulfites.

Purists will probably say that putting this information on the back of the bottle is hiding the truth, but to be fair to TWE, owners of both Penfolds and 19 Crimes, the word ‘coffee’ is as unmissable on the front as ‘rum’ is on its neighbour.

The only difference is that sticking wines in used spirits barrels that will dramatically affect their flavour and alcoholic strength does not fall foul of the rules stating what can and cannot be described as wine. For the simple reason, I imagine, that when those regulations were drawn up, while maturing whisky in sherry casks was a time-honoured tradition, no-one could imagine anybody wanting to reverse the process with wine.

I wonder how many people reading this have actually tasted wine aged in bourbon barrels. Or in some cases are even aware of how big a sector this now represents in the US, where last year over 20m bottles were sold.

Until now, for those who knew about it, the phenomenon – like peanut butter and jelly, and drinking Coca Cola for breakfast - was thought of as being an ‘American thing’.

No longer.
 

Crossing the Atlantic

Apart from the 19 Crimes Rum Barrel effort, that same UK store also offered 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel and Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Matured Shiraz, ‘Selectively finished in aged Scotch whisky barrels.

This shop is part of one of Britain's biggest food and drink retailers. It is, quite simply, where a large proportion of the 12,000 or so inhabitants of the town and surrounding villages it serves buy their wine. It also sells the Jam Shed brand's ‘Rich, Toasty & Buttery Chardonnay’ and ‘Rich, Jammy & Smooth’ Shiraz but does not offer orange wine, pet nat or anything that has any aspirations to be seen as ‘natural’.

If it did, I suspect the people tasting those for the first time might well say “but this isn’t wine”. And, compared to what they are used to, that would be a perfectly reasonable reaction. Just as older Bordeaux and Burgundy drinkers might look askance at recent vintages of those wines with alcohol levels nudging 15%. And traditional Portuguese wine fans might shake their heads at the 13% strength of Quinta da Soalheiro’s 2020 Alvarinho ‘Granit’ Vinho Verde.

Whether or not the word ‘wine’ appears on their labels, thanks to climate change, more sophisticated viticulture and winemaking, and changing tastes, the contents of the 75cl bottles on sale today, rarely resemble what would have been available 50 years ago. To a growing number of English-speaking wine shoppers today, the words 'Red Blend' have a meaning of their own - rich, oaky and most likely generous in alcohol and/or sweetness - that will be foreign to most older wine professionals.

Of course many modern wine drinkers do care passionately about the way the stuff in their glass is made and where it comes from. But others don’t, so the fact that what they enjoy is a ‘wine-based drink’ rather than a ‘wine’ is hardly likely to cause them any more concern than Aperol Spritz fans might have over whether or not the key ingredient in their favourite aperitif is legally designated as a Bitters or a Vermouth.

 

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