Devil’s Advocate: New EU Labelling Rules; a Spoonful of Sugar and a Pinch of Salt
The new EU labelling laws will compel producers to reveal whether they have sweetened their wines. Robert Joseph welcomes the move – with reservations.
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Robert Joseph – with horns
Before reading any further, could you please answer a simple question? Do you ever add a little salt to the food you are cooking or eating? Salt is, as we all know, unhealthy in excess and, one way or another, most of us probably consume more than we should.
But – like that other rather healthier flavour enhancer, lemon juice, it can definitely make food tastier. Of course, people who’ve given up adding salt might disagree. Once they’ve grown used to its absence, they say they enjoy their food more – echoing those who claim to start the day more effectively after a cold shower. In a properly ordered world, maybe salt use would be regulated, or we could go back to the good old days when it was taxed.
But our world is less well ordered. We are allowed to do all sorts of things that can potentially do ourselves and each other harm. Sensibly, however, efforts have increasingly been taken to ensure that we can be aware of the risks we are taking. These range from ingredient listing on food and drink, to gruesome images on cigarette packets and, my favourite: a sign I saw in Australia which simply stated “If You Drink and Drive, You’re a Bloody Idiot.”
Which brings me to sugar, or more precisely, sugar in wine. Thanks to the new EU labelling rules, anyone picking up a bottle of wine – and most likely scanning a QR code on the back label – will know precisely how much sugar it contains. For those, like me who have often been surprised by the sweetness of Loire and Alsace whites and some New World reds, this is a very welcome change. So too is the fact that the producers will also have to reveal whether they have added rectified must to sweeten the wine and, if so, the amount. If the makers of a packet of cookies have to say how much salt they used in their recipe, why shouldn’t wine producers be subject to the same rules?
But this is where it gets a little trickier. Just as a surprisingly tiny addition of salt can transform a dish, so can the equivalent of a pinch of rectified must. Depending of course on the acidity and pH in a wine, very, very few people can detect sweetness at levels of less than two or even three or four grams per litre. But taking a wine from two g/l to three can make a huge difference to the way it is perceived. Used judiciously, the rectified must brings out fruit and makes the finish longer and richer without any sensation of sweetness.
The EU has amended existing wine declaration regulations – eliminating foil casing requirements for sparkling wine. The new provisions will be effective from 8th December 2023.
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Adding appeal to Bordeaux
This effect is apparent at higher concentrations. I once ran a blind tasting exercise in London for a major wine distributor in which we gave 50 self-declared Bordeaux drinkers – mostly men in their 50s and 60s – what they believed were a set of examples of red wine from that region. All they were asked to do was complete a form indicating for each sample, the flavours (cassis, cherry, plums, green peppers, etc) they found; how much they liked it and the price they would pay. The contents of the bottles were a simple Bordeaux Rouge with less than 2 g/l, and samples of the same wine to which two, four, six and eight g/l of rectified must had been added.
Only three of the participants noticed any sweetness, even at the higher doses. As they tasted the more heavily dosed samples, the others almost all ticked the boxes indicating more cassis or plum, and a higher acceptable price.
Wine treated in this way could not be legally sold as Bordeaux – though at least one well-respected negociant believes the rules should be relaxed – but the addition of a gram or two, or maybe more, to non-AOC wines destined for high volume sales in supermarkets is commonplace. And its broader practise is far from unknown.
Drier than coffee
For professionals who cry ‘Quelle Horreur!’ at the very thought of a red wine with 10 g/l it is perhaps worth pointing out that anyone drinking a 175ml glass would be consuming less than a 10th of the (milk) sugar to be found in a standard, unsweetened, 473ml serving of caffe latte. If they were to down the whole bottle, they’d be ingesting a teaspoon and a half of sugar – less than many people might casually sprinkle on their morning porridge or grapefruit.
But that’s not the point. There’s a big difference between consciously adding a spoonful of unhealthy white powder to your coffee and unknowingly consuming it in a product you might reasonably have expected to be ‘dry’. So, as I say, the EU labelling rules should be welcomed by one and all.
My guess, however, is that most wine drinkers will take no more notice of the information they are now being given than they do of the lists on the packets and jars in their kitchen cupboards. But, like the tech sheets buried away on winery websites, it will be catnip to wine writers and especially those who imagine that wine making shouldn’t involve anything other than the juice of freshly harvested grapes. I fully expect plenty of delicious and highly popular wines to be demonised because their producer has added a couple of grams of what is, in effect, ultra-concentrated grape juice.
Sugar and sulphor
This messaging will then be lapped up by nervous wine drinkers who already imagine that their every ailment is caused by the ‘sulfites’ in wine rather than precisely the same SO2 that has been routinely used in the production of the dried fruit, jam, and packs of salad and seafood in their fridges and freezers.
There’s an old saying that a little learning can be a dangerous thing. Most of us know that salt and sugar are bad for us. Few of us could say with any accuracy how much we ingest of either in an average day, or which food or drink was most responsible, and given all the other stuff we all have to occupy our minds, I doubt that’s going to change unless or until a doctor persuades us individually to give it more thought.
Even then, we need to keep a sense of proportion. Those of us who do more than pay lip service to Wine in Moderation, won’t often be drinking more than a couple of glasses of wine. If those have, say, four g/l of sugar (two of which have been added), that’s the equivalent of less than half a teaspoon. The amount many people add to their espresso, or the equivalent of a few grains of salt.