Between the lines In Hong Kong, having the right label on a handbag, pair of shoes, watch or car is important.
When it comes to food, our government believes it is vital we know the nutritional content of any packaged product, requiring a label that usually obscures the original (even if it was more helpful). As with food labels in most parts of the world, the ingredients are listed from the largest component (by weight) to the smallest, and we're given information about the nutrition of the product, such as the amount of fat, sodium, fibre and cholesterol. Wines, though, do not require these nutrition labels, even though they are made from grapes grown with wildly varying standards of care and viticultural practices.
Even grapes labelled as organic or biodynamic can still have traces of chemicals - perhaps a neighbouring vineyard uses a spray, which can drift on the breeze over the vines. And rainwater can wash chemicals downhill onto a vineyard from one higher up a slope.
New World wines are much more upfront with their labelling information than their Old World counterparts. The labels list the grapes used to make the wine and almost always provide further information about the vineyard and winemaker. In general, with New World wines, if there is only one grape stated on the label, the contents of the bottle will be at least 85 per cent of that grape. This is helpful information for anyone who is keen on a particular grape or style of wine.
In Australia, the preservative used to keep a wine stable must be noted on the back label; asthma sufferers should watch out for sulphites such as sulphur dioxide and preservatives numbered from E220 to E228. Wines have varying levels of sulphites but, generally speaking, the sweeter the wine, the higher the amount. Interestingly (although not exactly on topic), beer has the least amount of sulphites of any alcoholic drink.
Old World wines are a bit of a hodgepodge of labelling information. For a wine neophyte, it can be a confusing world. In Bordeaux, France, most labels have a pen-and-ink depiction of an old chateau with its name in a prominently sized font. Next there is the appellation - where it's from - and then the vintage. In small print are the name of the owner/wine group and the percentage of alcohol. Look out for the line " mis en bouteilles a la propriete", which tells you it was vinified and bottled at the chateau - a good sign that it's not a mass-produced wine. Sometimes, in very fine print, you will see " contient des sulfites" (contains sulphites) and perhaps " vin non filtre" (unfiltered wine, which is a tip to consider decanting when you open the bottle). What the wine label doesn't state is the grapes that go into it. It's up to the customer to find out.
In my role as sommelier, a recent encounter with a restaurant guest led me to give a quick wine lesson at the table. It began with his request for "a Bordeaux-style big wine that is easy to drink with lots of fruit and soft tannins which can be enjoyed by the ladies at the table". A tricky request because he also pointed out (discreetly) that he wanted to spend about HK$1,000.
To get a hint of the wines he liked, I asked what he had enjoyed in the past and whether he was in an adventurous mood (he said yes). Given that he had requested lots of fruit and soft tannins, I thought of Right Bank Bordeaux, which are more merlot based. And as he was feeling adventurous, I suggested a super Tuscan; these wines use Bordeaux grapes or have sangiovese as the base, with Bordeaux grapes blended in. He went for the Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia, which is the second wine of Ornellaia; it's made with the same attention to detail as the original but from younger vines.
When I chatted to him towards the end of the meal, I found out he had no idea that Right Bank wines contained more merlot; he had always thought Bordeaux wines were made from the same grapes but in varying percentages. He thanked me effusively for enlightening him as he now understood why he liked certain Bordeaux and not others.
The same can be said for wines from the Rhone. For example, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape can contain up to 13 grape varieties.
If only more Old World winemakers were willing to be a bit more innovative and transparent, it would benefit diners the world over.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.