Look Beyond the Label

Some wine labels entice you, they tempt you, they just shout ‘buy me’ at you. I blogged about such a bottle a few weeks ago – a wine I bought simply because I was attracted and intrigued by its label. Others – well, take the label pictured above. It’s quite stylish but it doesn’t tell you much: no obvious sign of where the wine comes from nor, unless you happen to recognise the name ‘Furmint’, what the grape variety is. As a result, it would be easy to leave on the shelf and look for something more obviously appealing. But that would be a shame as you would be missing a delightful, full-flavoured white from Hungary made with that country’s high quality native variety, Furmint.
We don’t see many wines from Hungary exported these days but, delving back into history, they produced the most sought-after wine in the Noble Courts across Europe. The wonderful, sweet Tokaji was the first choice of both the Tsars of Russia and Louis XIV of France (who called it the “Wine of kings, king of wines”). It’s still made today in the region from which it takes its name, using a unique production process and still including the Furmint variety as part of the blend.
But, back to our – very different – Furmint, made by Tornai and available from Corks of Cotham at £12.99. It isn’t a dessert wine although it’s just a touch off-dry and made, not in the Tokaji region, but much further west in Nagy-Somló not far from the Austrian border. It’s a lovely, tangy, rich, mouth-filling wine with hints of spice and lemon peel and really good length. The fruit is pure and clean and the wine is unoaked. Although fine to drink on its own, this is really a food wine: anything full-flavoured and, perhaps, a bit spicy would be best.
All in all, a delicious, good value white wine but, unless customers are willing to look beyond the label, how many will ever know what they’re missing?

Go Wild!

The label says ‘Wild Ferment’ in big red letters. So, is this something special we ought to know about? Well, something interesting: yes; but something special: not really.
Before the middle of the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s work, all wines would effectively have been ‘wild ferment’. Indeed, the earliest wines almost certainly happened in this way – by accident when some grapes were picked and left somewhere warm and the yeasts naturally present in the vineyard reacted with them to produce a sort of crude and basic wine. So, a wild ferment simply means using the naturally occurring yeasts.
The alternative to a wild ferment is the use of cultured yeasts. This really only took off in the 2nd half of the 20th century when the popularity of wine expanded and most bottles were bought from supermarkets. The new customers demanded a consistent product – not something that was always possible with wild ferments – and, as a result, many producers turned to cultured yeasts that could be controlled and standardised to give a more predictable outcome.
But others thought that using cultured yeasts destroyed any sense of ‘terroir’ – the distinctive taste of the individual vineyard – and have remained with (or gone back to) using wild yeasts instead. These producers are in the minority today hence the specific mention of the words on the bottle label.
And the wine itself? Delheim’s Chenin Blanc is a fresh, grassy white from Stellenbosch in South Africa (Wine Society, £10.95). The attractive herby nose is followed by quite a full and complex palate. There’s subtle spicy, savoury flavours from partial barrel fermentation and a few months left on its lees (the dead yeast cells that keep working even after the fermentation has finished). And plenty of ripe melon and peach, too. All topped off with a long mouth-filling finish.
So, does the wild ferment make a difference? It’s difficult to say but I found quite a distinctive character about this wine that says more than ‘this is a simple Chenin Blanc’. And it’s a real bargain at just over a tenner.

What’s in your Wine?

Well, fermented grapes, of course, but is there anything else in the bottle you should know about? These days, when almost all food products have detailed lists of ingredients and allergy warnings on the labels, it’s perhaps surprising that all you get on most wines is the simple message ‘contains sulphites’. For some mysterious reason, wine is exempt from many of the labelling requirements that other foods and beverages must comply with.
So, credit to the Co-op supermarket chain who voluntarily list the ingredients on all their own label wines. Take their ‘Irresistible (their description, not mine!) 30° Pinot Noir’ from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£7):

apart from the expected Pinot Noir grapes, it contains tartaric acid – a common adjustment when grapes are harvested for extra ripeness – plus 3 ingredients to help ensure the wine reaches you in good condition: an antioxidant (nitrogen), a preservative (sulphur dioxide – hence the ‘contains sulphites’ message) and a stabiliser (cupric citrate).


It also goes on to tell you that a small (125ml) glass contains 98 calories – useful information for any weightwatcher – and that it’s suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
And then there’s a comment ‘made using oak staves’. This is something that most producers don’t want to tell you – not because the staves are harmful (they’re not), but because it destroys the ‘mystique of the barrel’ – the idea that the oak flavours that many of us enjoy in our wines come from the wine resting in one of the rows of oak casks we’ve all seen at many wineries.
The truth is that these casks are expensive (typically around £750 or $1000 each) and using them for wines that are going to retail at under £10 a bottle doesn’t make economic sense. There are 2 cheaper alternatives: either gathering off-cuts from the barrel-making process into a giant ‘tea bag’ and suspending that in a tank of wine or, better, using oak planks or staves in the same way. It’s this 2nd method that the Co-op are telling us about on their label.
Oh, and I’ve been so busy blogging about the label, I nearly forgot to comment on the wine. It’s rich and mouth-filling and brimming with cherry and plum flavours. Not over-complex but very drinkable and, for just £7, a very good buy.

What’s in a Name?

Naming is vital. Get it right, and your product is on everyone’s lips; on the other hand, failing to check what your wonderful name means in other languages can be disastrous. Take the car company Vauxhall, for example. They named a car ‘Nova’; that’s great in English but, in a number of European languages, No va means ‘it doesn’t go’ – hardly the basis for a good marketing strategy!

In wine, too, names have been used to good effect: to my mind, one of the best is the South African producer who mocked Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages perfectly with Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages, although I also like the style of an American grower, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to use the name ‘port’ for his fortified port-style wine, called it Starboard!

And then there are the attempts to attract buyers with particular interests: some friends of ours, knowing that I love cricket, shared a bottle called ‘Men in White Coats’ with us recently.

white coats

(For non cricket-lovers among you, I should explain that cricket umpires traditionally wear white coats and the raised finger gesture on the label is the umpire’s signal that the batsman is out and his innings is over). The wine itself – a clean, crisp, easy-drinking Viognier from South Africa – was, however, less of a talking point during the evening than the name, which, to all of us, had another, less flattering, meaning.

Back in our youth, when someone was behaving strangely, it was often said that the men in white coats would soon be coming to get that person – the men in question being the nursing staff at a local facility for the mentally ill.

So, did our friends’ bottle really refer to the cricket or were they thinking of the current state of the country here in England?