A lot of ink, virtual and physical, got used throughout the fall and early winter talking about wines that are more or less “natural.” Most of the discussion was spurred by two books: Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop, and Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally by Alice Feiring. Both try to explain a type of winemaking that existed well before the 20th century (and is coming back, albeit with some 21st century innovation), where the simple, natural growing, fermentation and aging processes are preserved, and physical and chemical interference is discouraged. The wines have a character that is thought to allow a sense of place and varietals to shine through in them, rather than conforming to a particular (and increasingly uniform) style no matter where they’re produced.
I read both books and they got me thinking about how the average wine drinker is supposed to know whether a wine is natural, authentic, naked, or whatever. How do you find out if the producer uses the yeast that is found on the grape skin, or adds yeast? Whether the winery adds tartaric acid or other acids? Whether the grape growers spray for mold? Whether the winemaker uses micro-oxygenation? You could ask the winery, look at its website, e-mail the winemaker, etc. But if you’re in a wine shop and looking for a more-or-less natural wine vs. one that might be called more conventionally produced, you have to read the label or maybe a shelf tag (if there is one.) It’s likely that the label won’t tell you much if anything about how the wine is made. There might be some lovely prose on the back label, but it’s usually not that useful. I find it impossible to compare one wine’s characteristics to another that way. And words like “natural” which are undefined by regulation could mean practically anything. I skip right over them.
So how do you get this information on a wine label? I think it can be done, but it will take a lot of thought from people more concise and artistic than I. I’ll have some thoughts on this below, but first let’s look at some of what is and isn’t allowed on labels.
In many blog posts this past fall, natural wine advocates suggested that mandatory ingredient labeling would go a long way to helping consumers identify natural wines. I think that we will all be very, very old before this happens. In the meantime, though, winemakers are already allowed to list ingredients on their labels if they want to.
TTB, the federal agency that regulates alcohol, has some guidelines about ingredient lists on wine labels – mostly about placement, size, and wording. So at least the way I read it, there’s no issue with listing things like grape juice or other ingredients as long as the producer can document what gets put on the list. (If you’re looking for additional info on wine labeling regulations, click here.)
The problem is that ingredient lists cover what’s in there, not what’s not in there. There are two categories of things not there. One is materials like yeast and egg whites (used for clarifying the wine), for example, which are generally filtered out before bottling and so aren’t actually in the finished product except perhaps in trace amounts. TTB doesn’t make provisions for what might be considered processing ingredients, but they might be allowed with proper wording. Particularly for things that could be considered potential allergens like yeast or egg whites.
The other “not there” is more like “We Never Use…” and I think this is what natural wine advocates are looking for on a label. It’s a minefield, really, in part because TTB says nothing about it. But FDA does. So even if TTB were to approve a “No Fungicide” label, you can bet that a bunch of wine producers would take TTB to court over it, citing FDA practice.
A good analogy is the effort to get FDA to require labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, which is something I worked on a little back in my enviro advocacy days. We didn’t succeed. I’m not equating agricultural and manufacturing processes for wine with GMOs specifically, but the effort taught me a lot about what FDA allows on a label and why.
First and foremost, U.S. labeling requirements refer to the actual materials contained in the food, and not the way it is manufactured. GMOs are considered part of the manufacturing process in most cases, and so aren’t required on the label. There might be an exception in the case of allergens, such as people who are allergic to shellfish eating food from animals containing modified genes with some material from shellfish, and FDA punted that one for further study. (FDA does allow some other allergen warnings on labels.) But otherwise, no dice.
While acids, colorants, and flavor enhancers in wine would probably qualify as ingredients, it seems to me FDA’s GMO determination would apply to certain farming methods for wine grapes on TTB-approved labels. For example, we don’t see pesticides and fungicides listed on food labels, even if those chemicals were used in growing the food, so it’s unlikely that TTB would require wine producers to include them in wine ingredients.
Likewise, it turned out that FDA wouldn’t allow products made without GMOs to say “Made with no GMOs” or “GMO-Free,” although this labeling is allowed in Europe. While some of FDA’s reasoning was specific to GMOs, FDA made two points that are directly relatable to natural wine labeling:
(1) Saying that something is free of GMOs means there’s absolutely zero GMOs in the product whether or not you intended to put them in there. At this point, GMO material has carried all over because of wind, bees, and other means. There’d be almost no way to verify that this was true. Likewise for claiming that wine or wine grapes are free of pesticides or fungicides – there’s virtually no place on this planet where you won’t find some of those chemicals in the soil or water. Even the Arctic.
(2) Labeling a product as GMO-free invites the consumer to infer that products without that label are somehow unsafe or inferior. (Sorry, folks, but let’s face it – why else would you say it?) Since all the evidence to date suggested that foods containing GMOs were identical nutritionally to those without them, and that GMOs caused no harm, FDA wouldn’t allow it. The same would probably apply to labeling such as “No Chemicals,” “Pesticide-Free,” or “Fungicide Free” for wine. And since TTB already requires labeling for wine with sulfites above a certain concentration, I’m not sure that “No Added Sulfites” would be allowed, either.
What FDA does allow is voluntary labeling that has sufficient explanations of what you mean, as long as you can back it up. For example, rather than saying “No GMOs,” a milk producer could say “Our cows are fed with grain grown from seeds not developed through biotechnology.” A bit clunky, although it opens the door to wine labeling that says “Our grapes were grown without the application of synthetic pesticides and fungicides.”
Because of this, I think that there’s a combination of ingredient labeling and text that could accomplish the aims of natural wine advocates. If the producers of natural wine were willing to spend a little money to investigate and develop labels, I imagine they could do it. A few caveats come to mind, though:
(1) It would have to be simple and not too wordy. I tune out wine labels with “stories” on them right away – if I want significant reading material, I’ll stick to the newspaper. People can go to the winery website if they want more details.
(2) The producers would have to agree on three or four simple sentences that they’d all use on their labels, putting them in the same place on each and every label and bottle. That would make it easier to get the word out about it. Very specific language would also allow consumers to guard against the wine equivalent of greenwashing (making companies and products appear to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Would we call it redwashing or whitewashing?).
(3) I’m not sure exactly how a producer would document statements like “Our grapes were grown without the application of synthetic pesticides and fungicides.” Organic or biodynamic certification might work in some cases (since organic grape production doesn’t allow those chemicals, and biodynamics discourages their use). But these certifications have other criteria and require other practices that producers might not want, and you can’t use the words organic or biodynamic on a label without the proper certification. An alternative would be for these producers to create their own third-party certification tailored to the specific claims they’re making.
Am I just being naive about this? Have wine producers tried something like this before with or without success? Would it help customers in choosing wine? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please let me know.
Cy and I have been hibernating and watching a lot of television this month. We don’t have cable, so we watch the PBS Create channel, which pretty much runs cooking shows all evening long. One of our favorite TV cooks is Lidia Bastianich. Recently we saw her make a recipe of dried figs stuffed with nuts, honey, and spices and baked in a sweetened pomegranate juice sauce. It looked like a great cold-weather dessert, so I decided to try it with a few variations. I’ve always loved figs with blue cheese, so I thought a more savory blue cheese and walnut filling would be nice. I also wanted to use up some of the sweet red wine sauce I had in the freezer, so that replaced the pomegranate. But I also wanted to have some creaminess and little chunks of blue cheese in there, so I turned to Giada De Laurentiis’s when-in-doubt-use-mascarpone trick and added some to the filling (along with grated lemon zest, another one of Giada’s when-in-doubt standbys. And in case you’re wondering, I watch Giada at the gym since she’s on the Food Network). Whipping some more mascarpone with heavy cream made a nice topping. In the end, a killer dessert that’s not too sweet.
A few recipe notes: I don’t like using red wine aged in oak for cooking like this, so use a medium-bodied red wine not aged in oak instead. But don’t hesitate to use leftover wine in this recipe, because you’re cooking it for a while and you’d probably never notice the difference between leftover wine and wine from a freshly-opened bottle, providing the leftover wine hasn’t spoiled or oxidized. As for the figs, I found partially dried Mission and Calimyrna figs in a pouch in the grocery store. You need about a pound total. The Mission figs are smaller and you’ll use a lot more than 24 for the recipe.
Since the dessert is kind of savory, I think an elegant red wine would pair nicely. Try Domaine de Montvac Gigondas ($27). It’s earthy, spicy, and has a little leather and tobacco in there along with the very ripe fruit. Lots of flavor and it makes you feel warm – with or without a fireplace. Even without the burning log channel on cable.
4 ounces mild blue cheese (preferably Gorgonzola Dolce, but any one you like will do), divided use – bring about 1/3 of it to room temperature and leave the rest in the fridge
1-1/4 cups toasted chopped walnuts
¾ cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature, divided use (this is most of an 8-ounce container)
1-1/4 cup dry (unoaked) red wine
½ cup sugar
Juice and finely-grated zest of 1 lemon
1 pound dried figs, Mission or Calimyrna
½ cup cold heavy whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the wine and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for a couple of minutes, then take it off the heat and let it cool until it’s just warm. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the mixture into the bottom of a ceramic or glass baking dish that’s large enough to hold the figs touching one another. (a 10-inch round dish or 9 x 13-inch rectangle or oval).
Mash the softened blue cheese with a fork in a medium-sized bowl, then mash in ¼ cup of the softened mascarpone and the grated lemon zest. Mix in the walnuts. Take the remaining blue cheese from the fridge and crumble/cut it into very small pieces. Gently fold the pieces in with the walnut mixture and set aside.
Using a pair of scissors, cut the stem off the top of each fig, then make two perpendicular vertical cuts down through the top almost all the way to the bottom. You’ll have an x-shaped cut in the figs, but they should still hold together. Fill the figs with the cheese and walnut mixture, then gently press them back into shape. Put the figs cut side up in the baking dish with the wine sauce in it.
Cover the dish with foil tented so that it doesn’t touch the figs but still sealing the dish. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and continue to back for another 25 – 30 minutes, basting twice with the liquid from the bottom of the dish. The figs should be tender and looking just a little dry on top, and the cheese should be just oozing out a little. Bake for a few more minutes if necessary. Then take the dish from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes.
Before serving, combine the remaining mascarpone and the heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer, and whip until it looks like softly whipped cream. Divide the figs among the serving plates, drizzle the sauce from the dish over the top, then top with a little of the mascarpone cream.