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Authenticity in wine 

There’s an interesting article in the latest edition of World of Fine Wine (issue 12), by David Schildknecht on authenticity in wine. Perhaps it’s his philosophical background, but I come away feeling that Schildknecht raises some important and interesting issues but fails to nail them down – like the sea around a rocky shore, his arguments ebb and flow in interesting ways, without making a good deal of progress. But it’s still an interesting and important piece worthy of attention.

I’d like to take two rather different elements of ‘authenticity’ that I feel are important, one discussed by Schildknecht and one not. The authenticity that interests him is whether or not a wine is true to type. That is, does it matter whether a Pauillac tastes like a Pauillac or not, and should we judge its merits by how well it reflects its origins, or should our aesthetic appraisal be merely centred on what is in the glass. The second ‘authenticity’ – one which he doesn’t really consider – is the question of the extent to which additions or technical manipulations of wine permissible.

For the first question, I think the answer is that a wine should be true to type if it is being marketed by means of geographical locators, such as bearing the appellation (and here I am referring to more than just the legal requirement for noting the place the grapes came from). This is because the winegrower is in effect making a contract with the consumer. If I sell a bottle of Chablis – with the name Chablis displayed prominently on the label – then I am telling the consumer something about what to expect. I am also positioning my amid a bunch of peers. To make a wine that is atypical of Chablis and then sell it as such is wrong-headed. If I do this, I should either have it declassified, or use the legal term Chablis in such a way (perhaps by putting it in very small type on the label, if this is indeed permitted) so that I’m not misleading the consumer. Let’s draw an analogy with cheese. I like Comte. When I buy Comte, I know nothing about the producer – I buy by the ‘appellation’ name of Comte. I therefore want a cheese that tastes like Comte. If some ambitious cheesemaker were to make a fantastic cheese from the Comte region that no longer tastes like Comte, that is her choice, but it should not be labelled Comte. It is no argument to say that this cheese is better than the average Comte.

It follows from this argument that I believe typicity (I won’t use the terroir word) to be important. It’s one of the glories of wine is that there exist so many different regional styles. This diversity should be celebrated, even if the source of these differences (part grape variety, part winemaking style, part ‘terroir’?) is disputed. These differences of flavour, rooted in culture and tradition, should be cherished and protected. Of course, if you have a vineyard within an appellation, and you decide you’d like to stretch the boundaries, then feel free to make wine however you wish. But should it then no longer taste the way a wine from that region tastes, don’t break your contract with the consumer and label it with the appellation.

The second authenticity is the issue of naturalness of wine: how much manipulation or addition is acceptable? Some people have confused thinking on this issue. They say that because the very act of planting vines in monoculture in a vineyard is unnatural, then there’s no such thing as a natural wine. They also say that because most wines have some additions, such as sulphur dioxide, or some manipulation, such as racking or filtration, then anything goes: who is to say that one manipulation is natural and another isn’t? I disagree. Although it’s a line-drawing exercise, it is entirely appropriate for the wine community to decide where the line needs to be drawn on this issue. If we don’t, then wine will become just another manufactured beverage, like beer. And while beer is interesting and worthy of merit, it’s in the doldrums at the moment. Will the wine industry go the same way? I hope not. I reckon it’s time to reclaim wine as a ‘natural’ product, and have some sensible discussions about what should and shouldn’t be allowed in the production of wine.

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