The Bright Side of Rules and Regulations

Many of us chafe at big government paperwork, oversight, reports and anything that limits our freedoms. But many a wine devotee has benefited from wine region controls. Here’s how.

Wine producers think about rules and regulations all the time. I asked a producer in St.-Émilion how many rules he has to follow to get a wine out the door, and he said about 100. Now there are new European wine rules, which got me thinking about the benefits as well as the disadvantages to regulation in wine.

The Europe-wide rules governing wine—originally meant to guarantee that what the label states is true, in terms of a wine’s fruit source—are obligatory for every wine producer in the European Union. The word that’s being increasingly used goes further: in English, the word is protected. Many French wine labels, for instance, are already carrying the word protégée on what used to be appellation contrôlée and vin de pays wines in France, and similar names in other European wine-producing countries.

So a wine’s origin is not only guaranteed; it is protected. That means that the place from which it comes is even more clearly defined, more closely monitored. It’s like having a patent on a place. For the consumer, it means that when you buy a bottle of Rioja or Burgundy you can really be sure that you are getting what it says on the label.

There is a further safeguard: the lot number. Look closely at a bottle of imported European wine. Either on the label or on the bottle itself there will be a number preceded by the letter L. That’s the lot number. By using this number, it’s possible to trace what’s in your bottle right back to the vines from which the wine came.

Producers complain about paperwork. We all tend to complain about controls, rigid regulations, reports, paperwork, oversight. But the Languedoc Pinot Noir scandal reported in 2009 was uncovered precisely because of controls: A vigilant French customs official put numbers together and found they didn’t add up. Would that scandal have continued otherwise? We cannot answer because it was stopped by a control.

That particular control in Languedoc dates back to the very origins of appellation controls in Europe. They were originally set up to prevent fraud, to stop illegal blending across boundaries, to make sure that Syrah wasn’t added to Pinot Noir and the subsequent wine called Burgundy.

Now, with the creation of regions that are protected and with the prevalence of lot numbers, wine regulation in Europe has taken a giant step toward minimizing fraud. The same principle protects Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciuitto di Parma from coming from any other place than Parma in Italy. It means that one of my favorite cheeses, Stilton, only comes from that place in England. You can get blue cheese from anywhere, but Stilton from only one place.

I like this sense of food and wine going back to its origins, to being truly local. While we now admittedly live in a global village, when it comes to the best food and the best wine, its good to know that we can rely on its origins, at least if it comes from Europe.

These sorts of controls, maddening to producers, are a benefit to us. In past years, we made much of the fact that European wine was handicapped by regulations in relation to New World wine. Producers are required to adhere to strict planting controls in the vineyard, to report on everything they do in the cellar. Now I am not so sure it’s a handicap. The procedures by which we can trace a bottle of tainted baby’s milk should apply to what grown-ups drink, too. These regulations are designed to protect us from unscrupulous producers (yes, they do exist in wine), but they’re beneficial for honest producers, too—they can go into the world markets with a guarantee of origin and of traceability behind them.

Of course, every wine region in the world has its regulations; important ones apply to the hygiene of a wine. What sets Europe apart is being able to trace a wine back to its origins. Whether you believe you can taste a place in a sip of a given wine, as so many European winemakers assert, the purchase of that wine should not be an act of blind faith.

Published on June 6, 2011