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Deciphering a Virginia wine label
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The popularity of Virginia wine is at an all-time high. These wines have won accolades from San Francisco to London, competing with wines from all over the world. Diligent vineyard managers and wine makers are leaving no stone unturned to produce the finest wine possible. Today there are 216 bonded wineries in the state and four more pending.
One of the reasons for the improving quality of Virginia wines is that Virginia Tech provides a teaching research and extension bureau to assist grape growers and winemakers. The Enology-Grape Chemistry Group is headed by Bruce Zoecklein , who oversees this analytical laboratory service for the wine industry. The group provides a wealth of resources, including a winery sustainability program and winery planning and design. Zoecklein told me, “Our goal is to lower the cost of production, increase the quality of wine made in Virginia, or both.” He helped me understand some of the fine points of wine labeling regulations.
The information contained on the label of a bottle of Virginia wine can be instructive of its contents and provenance. The most prominent thing on the label will usually be the producer’s name. This is often the owner’s surname, for instance Horton, or a moniker the owners have selected to reflect some characteristic of the property. An example would be Barboursville, named after the ruins of Colonial Gov. James Barbour’s house on the property.
Many wines are named for the primary grape variety used in the wine. Examples would be cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay or viognier . Some wines are blends of various types of grapes that are often given a whimsical name concocted by the winemaker. These creative names could be anything from Howling Dog Red to Blushing Biker.
Federal and state regulations govern statements of origin. The federal agency charged with enforcement is the Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Virginia has six approved American Viticultural Areas. These are delineated areas authorized by the TTB that produce wines exhibiting unique characteristics. Local examples are North Fork of Roanoke River (Valhalla) or Rocky Knob (Villa Appalaccia).
Because of unpredictable weather at harvest or other factors, vintners often purchase grapes or juice grown by other Virginia vignerons or even out-of-state growers. If the specific AVA is listed on the label, it is a federal requirement that at least 85 percent of the grapes used were grown in that area. If the bottle simply states “Virginia,” the requirement is that at least 75 percent of the grapes were grown in Virginia.
The label will either specify the alcohol content or it may contain the phrase, “Table Wine.” This means that the alcohol content is between 7 percent and 14 percent. Varietals usually have a vintage year listed on the label, while many blends composed of grapes from different places will have no vintage designation.
Descriptors such as “off-dry,” “semi-dry” or “semi-sweet” usually denote a wine with at least some residual sugar. Wines are referred to as “dry” if they do not have a perceptible level of sweetness. There is no legal definition of the word dry.
Some wines are flavored with fruit flavors, such as raspberry. Such a wine can be labeled as Table Wine with Natural Flavors, which is considered by the TTB a “truthful and adequate statement of composition.”
Hopefully this information will allow readers to select a Virginia wine that is made in the style they prefer.
Gordon Kendall’s monthly column on wine and spirits runs in Wednesday’s Extra.
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