Don’t get worked up over misleading labels; it happens all the time

There has been a lot of press lately concerning the apparent lack of transparency in Canadian wine labelling. Basically people are upset because the words “cellared in Canada” were used alongside Canadian labels for products that were not authentically Canadian. Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for transparent labelling but the practice of bringing in cheaper juice from a neighbouring region and selling it under a brand name is nothing new. Did you really buy that $10 bottle of Sonora Ranch to get an authentic expression of Canadian terroir? No you just wanted some decent cheap wine to drink.

Patriotic consumers who beam with pride over the recent strides made in the quality of Canadian wines may see this as a major setback but don’t despair. The Europeans deal with this sort of thing all the time. In fact they have a rich history of tampering with the authenticity of their wines. The most famous and sited example in Europe is the so-called “Hermitzation” of Burgundian wines. In cool vintages when grapes did not get ripe enough in Burgundy grapes would be brought up from the south (usually the Rhône thus the name Hermitage) where it was warmer. They would be blended with local grapes to make the wine more concentrated.

This was common practice until recently and it happened in Burgundy where some of the most expensive wine in the world is made. We’re not talking about a $10 Canadian Merlot. Although outlawed now this sort of thing still goes on all the time in Europe. Just two years ago a major producer in Tuscany was busted for blending wines from Sicily into its Chianti to boost the colour and weight. Last year several Brunello producers had wine confiscated for illegally adding Cabernet Sauvignon. If this can happen in the classical wine regions of Europe it’s not so surprising to see it happen in Canada where our wine laws are still being formulated.

I can understand some of what is upsetting producers and consumers with this whole misrepresentation of Canadian product but we need to ask ourselves: Does this really have anything to do with quality? The short answer is “No.”

Canada has a board in charge of governing so-called “quality wines” known as the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Their job is to provide a standard of excellence for Canadian wines and help with marketing for the various members. So one would think that the VQA emblem on a bottle of wine would be a good sign that the wine inside is a quality example. There’s only one problem… it isn’t.

Nearly every bottle that is submitted to VQA panels passes the lacklustre quality tests. In fact the VQA in Ontario can’t even standardize themselves with the VQA in British Columbia — the two have never seen eye to eye. So what is the gold standard seal for Canadian wine you ask? The truth is there isn’t one. In fact most of the top wines being made in Canada are done so outside of the VQA system as conscientious producers see little or no value in participating.

The truth is there isn’t a single quality seal in the world that guarantees the wine inside will be any good. The French have been battling wine fraud for longer than anyone and their system is still ineffective. Take Bordeaux for example arguably the most famous quality wine in the world. The appellation controlee (AOC) system in France employs a tasting panel of highly trained specialists who also make sure you are working in accordance to the laws regarding viticulture winemaking and labelling practices. With over 70 years to perfect the system you would assume that any wine labelled Bordeaux AOC or even better Bordeaux Superior AOC would have to be good. But if you went into a liquor store today and grabbed a random $20 bottle of Bordeaux AOC off the shelf chances are (trust me I’ve done this) the wine inside would be a hollow shell of what you would expect from the world’s most renowned wine region. Italy does no better neither does Spain and the Germans have managed to bastardize many of their most precious vineyard sites allowing their names to be slapped on cheap bulk wine.

So along with the horrible outcry of how we’ve damaged the good name of wholesome Canadian wines lovingly tended on home soil we should remember that no one else is doing much better. What every consumer needs to know is simply this — there is no seal of quality of any significance on a bottle of wine no matter where it is grown. There are bad wines from Burgundy Australia California and yes even Canada. Anywhere someone can borrow from an established name and trade on its quality with an inferior product you can expect it to happen. And let’s face it the wineries in question are marketing low-end wines it’s not as if they had misrepresented some sacred B.C. terroir. These are branded wines and to be honest no one really cares where branded wines come from. If you want assurance that what you’re buying is authentic and of real quality then you need to take a look at who made the wine. The name on the bottle is worth 1000 gold medals trophies Parker Points Grand Cru appellations and so forth — the only thing that really matters is the character of the person who made it… period. Good people make good wine and corporations make money — that’s nothing new.