An End to California 'Chablis'

Does it matter that new American wines can't be labeled with regional affiliations?

Don't expect to call a port wine "port" for much longer—not if it's made outside of the Douro Valley region of Portugal. If the recent trade agreement between the European Union and the United States goes through, Europe will be taking regional names like port, sherry, and Chablis back for good. In three years, words that fall under the rubric of "14 traditional EU expressions" —vintage, clos, superior, chateau—will also be phased out here.

European parliamentarians hope to put an end to the 200-year-long fight their winemakers have waged to lay claim to these names. At the same time, they'd like to assure greater access to the U.S. market. But in what some EU lawmakers regard as a Faustian deal, they must in turn let in American wine made with practices fastidiously banned in Europe (for example, using oak chips to get a vanilla flavoring, and adding water during the fermentation process). Furthermore, already-existing wines can keep their current appellation; only new ones will have to change. (According to one Associated Press report, French Liberal Democrat Anne Laperuze criticized the deal with the comment, "I don't want a McDonald's type of Chardonnay.") This is hardly the end of the debate, with a second round of negotiations still to come.

Who's in the right here, and does it even matter? Three experts from the wine industry weigh in: Kathy Green, a buyer for IS Wine in the East Village; Tim Kopec, wine director for Veritas and creator of Nobu Las Vegas' wine list; and Matt Kramer, a critic for Wine Spectator and author of Matt Kramer's New California Wine: Making Sense of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Central Coast, and Beyond.

On producing wine with oak chips or by adding water:

Kopec: I think it's a really cheap way of adding vanillin or oak taste into wine. By simply dumping in oak chips you're not getting any maturation process at all, you're just getting the vanillin itself. It's like perfuming the wine. Water is certainly not helping the quality of the wine; it's simply diluting the wine in order for it to come within a certain alcohol percentage, and therefore increasing the volume. It's a measure that allows the winemaker to tinker with the law, basically. Green: What's happening is the globalization and commoditization of wine. When [European lawmakers] say there aren't any standards, they have a point.

On phasing out regional names (Chablis, Chianti, Sauterne, Champagne, Port, Sherry, Madeira, etc.):

Kopec: That we've been able to do it for so long is ridiculous. It's like a copyright or a trademark. If there's no control on the name, meaning if we get to use it, or someone in France or Italy gets to use it, all of a sudden the name Burgundy means less now. I don't think [producers outside of these geographical regions] ever really intended on it tasting like those wines. The port might be sweet, but it's certainly not going to be using the same varietals, have the same arid area that it's grown in, the same latitude and longitude. There are many different things that influence the character of the grapes. So no, it's not the same quality. They're bastardizing the name. It's not only the region; it's the laws that you need to abide by within that region that the government puts on to make a quality product. It's not a guarantee of quality, but it gives the consumer at least a guarantee of authenticity.

Green: A lot of people come into the store, and they don't understand. You say, "Oh, we have a really nice Chablis," and they say, "Oh, I hate Chablis." They're used to the cheap stuff that calls itself Chablis, and then when they taste a real one, then all of a sudden, they realize [the difference]. I don't know how much the traditional producers are going to benefit, but it's definitely had a detrimental effect on the ground for sure.

Kramer: It will not change how you and I buy wine. The reality is we're seeing fewer and fewer of those kinds of wines anywhere. Most labels today from California, New York State, Washington, and Oregon do not use the words Burgundy, Chablis, or Chianti. Port or sherry continue to be used, and that will certainly be a problem, because those are considered wine types by us, and we'll have to come up with new terms for them. It doesn't matter to you as a consumer that Yellowtail just says Yellowtail. It doesn't say Yellowtail Chablis, Burgundy, or anything else. And Yellowtail went from zero to 10 million cases in the space of a handful of years. I only mention it to underscore that the power of these names in the marketplace is nowhere near as essential as it may have been 30 years ago. [It matters] to an existing brand—if I were Gallo Hearty Burgundy, I'd want to keep it. But for a new one, nah. Collectively, the American market has become much more sophisticated and much more knowledgeable, and it doesn't demand or necessarily rely upon names that were once the only wine words they've ever known or heard of.

 
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