Wine: Notes on a scandal

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Indy Lifestyle Online

News reports trailed Channel4's recent Dispatches programme on the wine industry as "disturbing". According to the TV show, many low-end wines have oak chips added to create the impression that they have been fermented in a traditional barrel; and producers use a host of additives to disguise the flavour of inferior grapes without listing them on the labels. One ex-newspaper wine writer even claimed that "many wines are no better than a sort of alcoholic cola. You get artificial yeasts, enzymes, sugar, extracts, tannins, all sorts of things added." No matter that these so-called additives are all part of the normal winemaking process.

Is it more than coincidence, perhaps, that this writer has a book to promote and a forthcoming series in a daily paper based on it? A number of people asked to appear on the Channel4 programme declined because they feared they would be stitched up. Were their fears well-founded? One told me that he would have appeared for the opportunity to talk about the way supermarkets inflate prices for their buy-one-get-one-free offers to make the discount look genuine. But when the programme makers kept returning to the question of additives, he took the view that they were out for a scare story, and declined to appear.

As the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) pointed out in a response to the suggestion that the wine industry had something to hide, the use of winemaking agents such as yeast, sugar, oak chips and sulphur is a perfectly legitimate practice, and to use a scare story to hoodwink the public into thinking otherwise is irresponsible. But it's easy to smear an industry with selective editing and loose talk of Frankenstein wines. There's nothing more palatable, after all, than a juicy wine scandal to whet the moralising tastebuds, and controversialists are in a win-win situation. Ignore them and they claim the moral high ground. Tackle them and they get all the attention they were seeking in the first place.

What about the real wine scandals? Remember when an Italian producer added harmful methanol to wines that resulted in consumers dying? And when consumers were defrauded by false accounting in the great Bordeaux scandal of the 1970s? These were genuinely shocking breaches of the trust placed in wine producers by the consumer, but the humdrum truth is that most so-called wine scandals, like the case of Kingston Estate, which in 2000 was found to use silver nitrate illegally to process its wine, tend to be technical breaches of the stringent regulations that govern winemaking. As the head of theWSTA, Jeremy Beadles, points out, mandatory labelling wouldn't do anything to prevent such scandals occurring.

What actually constitutes a scandal is a moot point but there is reason for concern in the case of wine labelling and supermarket discounting. Labelling is a tricky one. The WSTA claims that having to list additives would cost £1bn to enforce with some labels having to cover as many as 25 different languages. Perhaps, but the suggestion that it can't list additives puts the wine industry on the back foot. WSTA is at least looking into the idea that the information could be provided via the internet. The question of supermarket discounting practices is relevant given that the British love of a bargain has encouraged supermarkets to use the unlovely BOGOF as a way of reducing surplus wine by pricing the original wine higher than it's worth.

Thanks to crying wolf on so much else, this is one inconvenient truth that got rather lost in a miasma of innuendo.

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