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Christopher S. Miller

Several years ago, a Sonoma Pinot Noir producer introduced to me the term “honest wine.” The winemaker claimed very few of the Pinot Noirs made in California at all levels of quality and price are made honestly. His definition of an honest wine is a wine that has the character of the grape and the terroir without excessive manipulation in the winery. I use Pinot Noir as an example because it is often manipulated to taste richer and fuller than is typical, but all grape varieties can be manipulated in the winery. It is for this reason I am an advocate of blind tasting. If a wine professional’s palate is trained properly (via blind tasting practice), they can distinguish between a natural Pinot Noir and one that has been “juiced up” and base their purchases on that.

Knowing specific wine laws is not important to the average wine consumer, but some laws might surprise many readers and explain some of the differences in wine styles. In Burgundy, the historical home of Pinot Noir, the law requires wines to be 100% from that varietal. Just what most people would expect. This is also the case with Chardonnay from Burgundy. Recently, the regions of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile have all changed their wine laws for varietally-labeled wines to be at least 85% of that grape in the wine. That leaves 15% for a bit of manipulation, say adding a touch of heavy, high alcohol Grenache to boost up a light Pinot Noir. But this is an improvement over the prior limits and the current laws here in the United States. Here we can label a wine by varietal if there is 75% of that grape in the wine. So if a producer’s Pinot Noir is light and pretty but not as rich and full as he (and the important critics) hope for, he can blend in 25% of a big, rich grape to darken the wine to boost the alcohol and power of the finished wine.

I don’t believe all winemakers do this, but we should be allowed to know when it does happen so we can understand the real, natural character of Pinot Noir (or any other grape) from a particular place. Oh, and speaking of place, in the United States a wine that states an appellation on the label (Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, ect.) must have 85% of the product from that region, so again 15% of a wine from Napa Valley can include grapes from Monterey or somewhere else with less pedigree and quality. To add to this complicated issue, the wine regions of Oregon and Washington State have stricter laws in place. In both states, a wine must have 90% of the stated varietal in the bottle and 100% from the stated region, thus giving the consumer much better information.

Here is an example of how these laws can affect flavors of a wine:

To keep my palate and brain in shape, my wife frequently has me taste and analyze wines blind. One such blind was a dark ruby red with a bright rim. The legs traveled down the glass relatively slowly (indicating a higher alcohol content—13%). Aromas were of red and black raspberries, black cherry and red currant with a note of black pepper spice. I also noticed a touch of earth, almost dusty. The palate was full of sweet flavored fruit, yet balanced with nice acidity and the finish was moderately long. I was impressed with the quality of the wine and guessed it to be a Cabernet Franc from a new world region, possibly Long Island. The wine turned out to be Millbrook Cabernet Franc from New York State. Millbrook is located in the Hudson Valley, so I was close. About a week later, a representative of Millbrook Winery casually mentioned the Cabernet Franc actually came from Long Island vineyards…so I found out how close I really was. On the Millbrook website, the Cabernet Franc mentions only New York State as the wine’s origin, but states the varietals as: 75% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. So here is an obvious situation of how various wine laws will affect the flavors and perception of a wine.