Monday, January 01, 2007

VQA or not VQA?

January 17, 2007 -
A popular source of extensive recommendations for economical wines, mostly available from the LCBO, is Billy's Best Bottles. A monthly E-Wineletter can be requested through Billy Munnelly's website .

The January 07 E-Wineletter asks the question:
"Do you think that a wine should conform to the accepted expectations of its grape variety, or can it be whatever the winemaker wants it to be? Must a wine be 'true' or can it be 'original'?"

My reply: A wine drinker that chooses his wines according to 'Fresh, Nice, Rich, etc.' doesn't have to be all that concerned with terroir, varietal aroma, flavour, and texture or body. Nor does he have to be concerned with a vintner's long heritage of planting and nurturing vines over good and bad vintages - all elements of a 'true' wine.

In fact, neither is his choice clouded by endless shelves of shifting LCBO stock. The wine taster, whether trained or intuitive, has already categorized the wines in such a manner and listed them in a handy book called
Billy's Best Bottles . This lets the drinker quickly match a wine to the moment, then relax and enjoy.

An 'original' wine, or as in the question 'whatever the winemaker wants it to be', would give more latitude to the winemaking process - and these days that is considerable. In fact, VQA accreditation doesn't limit the kind, amount nor number of additives that the winemaker has at his disposal - as long as he complies with the Food and Drug Act and uses 100% local grapes. So he can choose to let his vines be full of grape clusters - to increase volumes. He can choose to machine harvest rather than hand pick prime grapes - to lower harvesting costs. He can mix vineyard crops as long as he labels according to VQA specifications.

Doing all of these things compromises 'trueness' but it doesn't matter since the winemaker can add enzymes, imported yeast strains, nitrogen for colour and body, nutrients and tannins (from European grape skins) to normalize, as the 'biolab manual' recommends, the aromas, brightness and balance of 'whatever he wants it to be' whether true to the varietal or not. And VQA doesn't restrict nor monitor the addition of these materials nor does it require labelling to reflect this 'doctoring'..... nor do we know what vintners are doing in other countries since the LCBO doesn't ask and the vintners aren't telling..... but they are likely doing 'whatever the winemaker wants' - and that's to make money.

January 24, 2007 -
I thought I'd expand on an observation mentioned in my Favourites of 2006 - first, so some could rebut if I've missed something or, so some can at least be aware of it.

My concern is whether VQA accreditation is being usurped as a result of not keeping up with where technology is taking winemaking these days.

I've noticed a higher number of 'commercial' wines on Ontario LCBO shelves. I'm starting to sense a gradual but quickening change in winemaking as Corporations take over artisan wineries through mergers, the purchase of vineyards, and generally a shift in what used to be heritage devotion.

My specific concern is the introduction of 'additives' to many wines. It's not New versus Old World and it's far more extensive than switching from sugar to aspartame as in colas. Some of the wines I've tasted are like, if not Frankenstein creations, fictional characters from the Batman series: Riddler - 'can you guess the wine?', Joker - 'bad grapes but good chemistry. The jokes on you!'.

At first I thought these were simply the result of volume production methods ... compromises on grapes, volume blending and fermentation, and tailoring wines for certain markets. I then noticed what appeared to me as exaggerated characteristics: unusual aromas or - as I thought of them -lopsided noses, colours too vivid for the varietal, a glycerine mouthfeel, lemondrop acids, etc.

This week I Googled for the 'rules' for VQA accreditation... and found that as long as vintners used a minimum percentage of local grapes, a sample of their wines tasted OK to a panel, they complied with the Food and Drug Act and paid the fees, a wine could affix 'VQA' to its label. VQA appears not to restrict 'additives' to enhance the wine. I Googled for 'wine additives' and found reference to products for the wine industry sold by 'Gusmer Enterprises' - surely one of many such Companies. Their 'Wine Products Catalog' lists a collection of Yeasts strains, Enzymes, Bacteria, Nutrients, Tannins (from European grape skins), Oak alternatives, etc. each to improve, compensate or change the taste, textures, finish, colour and flavours of various varietal based wines. 

What I thought was a label of merit (VQA) and to some extent an assurance to consumers is becoming marketing hype. Some wineries are becoming chemistry laboratories importing ingredients in HazMat containers and still eligible to show 'VQA' accreditation. Without a change consumers will lose touch with the vitality of varietals, the terroir of vineyards, vintage variations and the heritage and artistry of winemaking. How can we avoid 'Riddler' when we pay for Opus? I think we need more specific rules for VQA and/or more definitive labeling, eg. 'This Wine Contains Only Local Ingredients'.

I have no idea if, how, or whether accreditation or labeling is recognizing this direction in winemaking in other countries - so Buyer Beware!

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