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Looking behind the label

October 4, 2012

The Label Project chocolateChoosing which wine to buy can be like negotiating your way through a maze of confusion. When I was studying for my Wines and Spirits Education Trust exams, the level 2 book was called Looking behind the label. The label, that slip of paper stuck to the front of the bottle, is our talisman to choosing wine but it’s far from straightforward. German wine labels can be the most obfuscatory; in some cases it’s impossible to tell whether the wine is sweet or dry. A knowledge of the regions of France and where the main grape varieties are grown is still necessary to understand French wine. Once you know that Chablis contains unoaked Chardonnay, white Sancerre predominantly Sauvignon Blanc and Vourvray Chenin Blanc, life starts to get a bit easier but unless you take a pocket wine guide into a French supermarket you may still be baffled by smaller communes.

Glass of white wine

New World wine makers stole a march on the Old World by understanding the need to make things more transparent. The US and Australia were pioneers of varietal labelling i.e. stating which grape varieties are contained in the wine. The urge to ape traditional Grand Cru appellations also went out the window and wines were given names that customers felt warm and friendly about (that were easy to pronounce). In fact labelling started to get radical; take the Ralph Steadman illustrations on Cardinal Zin from Bonny Doon (anyone remember The Catalyst made by Randall Grahm and sold by Oddbins?) the success of Fat Bastard and Pinot Evil in the US and the rise and rise of Goats do Roam from South Africa.   I draw the line at wines marketed to women in the US including Mad Housewife, Mommy’s Time Out and Happy Bitch (see more here) and would rather be seen dead than carrying one of those out of the store.  Which also demonstrates that fashion, style and trends can affect wine brands (and grape varieties) more than the contents of the bottle. In fact the marketing by varietal while neglecting terroir is now having an impact on a lot of New World wines particularly Australia, as certain grape varieties go out of fashion.

Testing taste-buds

Looking back on my wine exams, the most nerve-wracking part of WSET advanced level was the blind tasting session. Putting aside all preconceptions and prejudices and concentrating on what is in the glass, can be tricky.

And so it was when I agreed to participate in a blind tasting challenge, The Label Project, that was being held among bloggers all over the world. The stakes were high – get it right and I could win a trip to Australia. Could I clear my mind and trust my instincts enough to be successful?

Diary of a blind tasting:

No need to guess the country of origin. It was stated on a little label at the back – Made in Australia. The welcome video has an Australian voice over. A double-bluff? Not if the prize was a trip to down-under!

Wine one:

The Label Project clues for wine 1

Region clues:

  • It lies between two other major and much older wine regions
  • Its macroclimate is cool but within the region there are many varied topographies, soils and mesoclimates
  • It is famous for its fruit produce including cherries, pears and apples

Varietal Clues

  • Hints of honeydew melon aromas
  • A palate of lemon pith
  • Underlying creamy texture

The clues made me think that it could be Chardonnay, the nose and the bottle shape confirmed it. Forget Aussie over-oaked though. This wine was crisp and with enough acidity to balance the creaminess.

Wine two:

The Label Project clues 2

Region clues:

  • Altitude of the region ranges from around 250-400 metres (approx 800-1300 feet) above sea level
  • In general, winters are cool and wet but summer days are warm, dry and sunny here
  • It is very popular with wine tourists

Varietal clues:

  • Spicy aroma of rich fruit cake
  • Rich berry flavours with a hint of dark chocolate
  • Velvety texture

I was certain from the clues that this was Shiraz. I was just filling in my answer when I though I’d better taste it. The colour was unexpected, I thought it would be more purple. It wasn’t the usual block-buster, deep, peppery Aussie Shiraz I’d expected. There was doubt in my mind. Where was the pepper? It was soft, velvety, with berry fruits on the palate and nose. I kept wavering. Merlot?

Wine three:Clues for wine 3

Region Clues:

  • The terrain is completely flat
  • Its subsoil is an ancient marine bed
  • It has a maritime influenced climate

Varietal tasting note clues :

  • Leafy aromas with a hint of mint
  • Ripe cassis flavours
  • A firm structure with good persistence on the palate

Another cert. Cabernet Sauvignon without a doubt. A hint of blackcurrant leaf and mint, firm tannins. Well balanced and very drinkable.

Waking up early in London on Friday morning I quickly filled in my answers while sitting in bed, sent them off and promptly forgot all about it.  Returning to Dubai on Monday, I was greeted by the welcome and unexpected  presence of yet another box.  I’d had a sneaking suspicion that the wine was Jacob’s Creek Reserve and the contents confirmed it. But alas not Merlot – wine number two was a Shiraz – I’d completely over-analysed that one! Ah well, I could drink my consolation prize with pleasure getting five out of six correct.

Jacobs Creek Reserve

Final answers:

Wine #1 – Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills (South Australia)

Wine #2 –  Shiraz from the Barossa Valley (South Australia)

Wine #3 – Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra (South Australia)

Congratulations to the winner who will be announced today from among my fellow bloggers Life in the Food Lane, The Hedonista, Ginger and Scotch and Ishita Unblogged. They will join other bloggers from around the world at Jacob’s Creek where, no doubt, they’ll be learning all about terroir. That’s one party worth going to! Here is the destination:

How do you choose your wine and how much do you think the label affects your choices?

  1. October 4, 2012 2:33 am

    Well Sally wasn’t I right when I said that there are trillion things that I’ll learn once you write your post on this. Honestly, your knowledge on this is immense. It’s sad that you missed out one answer. That doesn’t take away anything from you. On the other hand it definitely means that there’s someone like me who doesn’t know her bubbly from carbonated soda and still happens to hit all the correct answers, partly by research and partly by well, gulping down some wine! Though will have to admit that I’m like a sponge – absorbing whatever I learn, wherever I can.

    The links that you have provided were super interesting. Will hit the bed now after having read a good bed-time write-up! And thanks a ton for the ping-backs – will help me trot along a bit faster than otherwise.

    I never knew that there’s going to be a winner from each region too (see I don’t even read things correctly!). Oops – slightly anxious now.

    • October 4, 2012 12:42 pm

      Ha ha ….not good enough in this case! We’ll have to indulge in the consolation prize 🙂

  2. Jonathan castle permalink
    October 4, 2012 10:29 am

    well do I remember the catalyst, and one I recall as the =cataclysm, made from vines traumatized by the San Francisco earthquake and decorated with a label that had all the text ow rotten in a tightening spiral (the reason I bought it in the first place) – Susan and I have been avid Randall Grahm fans ever since!

    • October 4, 2012 12:43 pm

      I’m so glad – thought I was going mad…I couldn’t find a mention on Google…remember the wonderful label. The traumatised vines sound wild!

  3. October 4, 2012 10:39 am

    Lovely and educational post Sally. And it does sound like fun, although maybe a little stressful as well:)
    I love French wine and I either stick to what I know or like u said, judge a book by its cover and try and find out through the label, bottle and presentation. And something else interesting.. Why does wine taste so much better in France and Europe generally more than in Dubai. It’s so fresh? I would buy same exact bottle here and it won’t be the same?

    • October 4, 2012 12:47 pm

      Yes some wines really don’t travel do they? Vinho Verde is a case in point – tastes amazing in Portugal. I think the shipping and storage to Dubai is challenging. Wine hates changes in temperature – never store it in the kitchen – and bright light…something we have a lot of here. Also room temperature means anywhere between 14 – 18 C for reds to be at their best. Again a bit challenging here in Dubai.

  4. kellieanderson permalink
    October 4, 2012 11:12 am

    What a breadth of knowledge you have, Sally! Oodles of information crammed into a neat, perfectly formed post. Much written about wine bores me or goes over my head (usually the latter) but this ‘hit the spot.’ great post.

    • October 4, 2012 12:47 pm

      Kellie – your lovely comment has made my day. Really. I mean it.

  5. October 4, 2012 7:45 pm

    Well done Sally! I think labels are very important to me when I’m choosing a wine from a region I’m not familiar with 🙂

    • October 5, 2012 4:49 pm

      Agreed, unless you have one of these super-cool wine apps, it’s the only thing we can rely on usually.

  6. October 5, 2012 2:37 pm

    Nice post! We, too, overanalyzed the first region but got everything else right. Sadly, our “wine haiku” which we submitted to back up our answers never got to be seen :((( But a very fun project and so much fun following everyone on Twitter along the way!

    • October 5, 2012 2:45 pm

      How on earth could I have thought the shiraz was merlot? Feeling like a complete dork Mardi! Apart from that it was fun all the way. Would love to read your haiku.

      • October 5, 2012 2:49 pm

        Aw don’t even worry about feeling like a dork – we do over here too!!
        When I have space on my blog, I will get a post up and MAYBE the haikus will be published 😉


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