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More insight into the gibberish of wine back labels

wine back labels

The relationship between back label descriptors and price for red wine (from Mark Thornton’s study).

Mark Allan Thornton, the Harvard PhD student who has done groundbreaking work trying to make sense of the gibberish that is wine back labels, has done it again. His second study has found that the back labels on cheap and expensive wine seem describe the same flavors with dfferent adjectives, depending on how much the wine costs.

“The presence of ‘dark’ indicated a less expensive wine on average, whereas the nearly synonymous descriptor ‘black,’ which appears in the same flavor cluster, was strongly associated with the back labels of more expensive wines,” he told me in an email. “In other words, I think these results suggest that people may use different words to describe the same flavors depending on whether the wine is expensive or cheap.”

The good news? That the goal of the study was see if certain flavors could only be found in more expensive wine. Given that the first study found what Thornton calls a “quite modest” relationship between price and quality, given what’s written on the back label, this is even better news for consumers. If you want dark fruit flavors, you’re just as likely to get it with a cheap bottle as an expensive one.

So what’s the catch? As Thornton notes, wine back labels are not unbiased reviews, but marketing material. Hence, the study starts with a strike against it. In addition, he says, finding enough wine back labels to work with to overcome this handicap is problematic, given how unwilling the wine business is to share data (also a problem in the first study).

Still, the conclusion is worth pondering (and probably isn’t all that surprising give how confusing back labels are), as are several other highlights:

• White wine descriptors vary more with price than red wine descriptors do, which doesn’t seem to make much sense. My guess? Maybe the presence of sweet white wines offer more opportunity for variation.

• Balance and complexity, which should be the goal of every winemaker, are useless as back label descriptors. Balance was used on cheap, but not expensive, white wine, and not at all with red wine. Complexity had no correlation with red wine pricing and appeared on expensive white wine. Does this mean wine marketers don’t think cheap white wine drinkers care about complexity and figure we’re not smart enough to understand that it will be difficult for a $5 red to be as complex as a $100 red?

• Vanilla, oak, and color were associated with more expensive wines, while dry, clean, and tropical were associated with less expensive wines. Again, this is baffling, since clean should be a goal for every wine.

For more on wine back labels:
Back labels and the flavor of lynches
How to buy wine at the grocery store
Making wine easier

Wine of the week: Straccali Chianti 2014


Straccali ChiantiThe retail market, despite years of producers wishing otherwise, is still awash in cheap Chianti, the Italian red wine made with sangiovese from the Chianti region of Tuscany. Most of it, save for a couple of brands like Melini, tastes like you’d expect: harsh and bitter, with little reason to drink even though it costs less than $10. 

Add the Straccali Chianti ($8, purchased, 12%) to the first group. It’s not just a better value than the Melini, which I love, but a well-made wine that embarrasses all those $15 grocery store red Italians with their cute names and shiny labels. One of the great questions in Italian wine: Why, if the country’s winemakers can do something like the Straccali Chianti, do they do so many dull, overpriced, Paso Robles-style wines on the theory Americans prefer them? Trust me — we want quality, not marketing.

Look for more depth than the Melini, so that you have to swallow twice to get a hint of everything that’s going on. It’s also less rustic, with black pepper, red cherry, a little more grip, and the acidity that Chianti is famous for. One key to this wine: a touch of merlot is blended with the traditional sangiovese and canaiolo grapes, which rounds out the flavors and mouth feel. Plus, no oak, which lends more freshness than you expect.

Highly recommended, and almost certain to be added to the 2016 $10 Hall of Fame. Drink this as the weather cools on its own if you want a glass of red, or with pork or beef that will complement the crisp red fruit, as well as red sauce.


Winebits 405: Legal affairs edition


legal affairsBecause what fun would writing about wine be if we couldn’t write about lawsuits and other various legal affairs?

Aldi brings in the lawyers: It’s difficult for those of us in the U.S. to understand how touchy the British are about price comparison advertising and marketing for booze; hopefully, this bit about Aldi suing a retailer over price comparison will help explain. The discount retailer wants competitor Bargain Booze to stop the ads, which compare its products to Aldi’s with the tagline that they you can buy a brand name for the same price as Aldi’s private label. Plus, Aldi wants damages. I’d love to watch a bunch of barristers in wigs argue about this, but as much fun as it would be, the suit would have little chance of success in the U.S. That’s ironic, too, given that our booze laws, thanks to three-tier, are so much stricter than those in Britain.

Messing with Putin: Who knew that a geopolitical event like the Russian annexation of the Crimea would turn into a wine legal tussle? But it has, with Ukrainian prosecutors charging that the director of a winery in Russian-occupied Crimea opened a 240-year-old bottle for Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. The Associated Press says that the two men illegally drank rare vintages from the Massandra winery, some worth tens of thousands of dollars, and that the winery director committed a crime by serving them the wine. Obviously, since the Russians control Crimea, nothing much will happen, but it’s another example of the power wine has over people. I wonder: did Putin and Berlusconi give the wines 95 points?

Only in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania’s state store system has come in for its fair share of criticism, here and elsewhere, but this one is the best yet. A state resident illegally brought wine into the state, which means he likely bought it in New Jersey and drove it over the William Penn bridge, committing a crime in the process. As part of his settlement with the state, he had to forfeit about half of the 2,447 illegal bottles. Silly enough? It gets worse. As Bloomberg News Service’s Noah Feldman writes, the state will destroy the wine because a judge has ruled that it can’t be given to a hospital for fund-raising, since hospitals don’t use wine for medicinal purposes. Don’t worry if you’re confused here, since the entire episode — in keeping with Pennsylvania’s warped state store system — makes no sense. Just read the link and wonder at how this happens in the 21st century.

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