When and where wine is not wine…
If I ask you to define the word wine, what would you say? Probably that wine varies from vintage to vintage based on the terroir and characteristics of the grapes each year, but the bottomline is the same: it is always made from fermented grapes.
End of story.
The etymology of the word says it all: wine comes from Old English wīn, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch wijn, German Wein, based on Latin vinum . Vinum in latin is the product of the fermentation of vitis vinifera fruits (vitis vinifera is the latin name of the species of vine which carries grapes suitable for wine production. Vinifera means literally “able to make wine”).
No space for debate.
Wrong. At least in the United States.
Did you know that the official definition of what can be classified as wine—by law— varies from the European Union to the United States?
Legality of wine in the European Union
In the European Union, according to EU wine legislation, wine is defined as a
“product obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes, whether or not crushed, or of grape must.”
These parameters are even more so extensively regulated by what types of grapes can produce which wines—down to the minimum and maximum percentages of each varietal—and where each type can be produced and with what specific method. In Italy, wine laws are a vital part of wine culture, and it often takes years for wineries to obtain the highest-ranking DOCG status. However, at the most basic level, wine in the EU must be a product of fermented grapes. And we could agree that this is logic, right? Remember the etymology of the word itself? But…
How is wine legally defined in the United States?
It seems to be intuitive that all wine must be made with grapes, but in the US, it is not the case.
According to US wine legislation, the legal definition of wine in the US constitutes
“any fermented alcoholic beverage that is first, made from grapes or other fruit; second, contains not less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume and not more than 24 percent alcohol by volume, including all dilutions and mixtures thereof by whatever process produced; and third, is for nonindustrial use.”
Now, let’s break this down a bit.
Wine produced in the US can legally be considered “wine” even if it has no trace of fermented grapes at all.
Several wineries have bought into the niche market of fruit wines that can be produced with fruits including the following: plums, peaches, cherries, pineapples, pears, and apples, to name a few. First and foremost, they sell wines from grapes they grow in their vineyards, but they also have a vast segment of their business that uses produce from local farms or their own homegrown fruits to create experimental fruit wines. Some places even offer sparkling fruit wines, such as a sparkling pineapple wine. That being said, American producers have found a loophole in the legality of calling a beverage wine, all while the American government approves.
There is also an increasing number of “wineries” producing exclusively “wines” from other than grapes, infused with spices and aromas, to recreate the wine flavours without grapes.
I have been recently contacted by one of these wineries, the Pearson Brothers Winery, based in Alpine, CA; they reached out to ask my opinion about their product: Saccharo Wine. (saccharum in latin means sugar, speaking of etymology again…).
This “wine” is a fermented blend of natural ingredients – I quote – “to replicate what a grape gives. With no grapes to identify it, and not enough honey to meet the standards of a Mead, the wine needed its own category. The new style of wine is called Saccharo after the Latin term “from sugar” as the theory goes. Over the years we refined the Saccharo winecrafting technique until the blend of Wildflower Honey, Valencia Orange, and Indonesian Vanilla, was transformed into a delicious and smooth white wine”.
So, they market Saccharo as the “wine without grapes”, implying that it is a good quality for a wine not coming from grapes fermentation (I still have to wrap my mind around it and understand why).
Here again what the Pearson’s website says: “The Saccharo Wine process means we don’t have to worry about the inconsistency and unreliability of the grape-growing season. And that means you get an excellent bottle of wine every time”.
Wait a minute.
You are taking the magic away from wine? The mystery of tasting the new vintages? The different terroirs? The hand of mother nature on that specific harvest? And why the hell is this to be considered a good thing? You are taking the poetic unpredictability of this unique beverage and why should I be happy about it?
Ask me again to define wine and I will tell you that is the unique and mysterious bond between nature and human art craft and creativity.
Each and every harvest is unique, each and every place on earth planted with the very same grape variety can give so different flavours profiles, each and every wine region has its own traditions, culture, foods, environments, each and every producer has its own style and adapt it to the vintage, compromising with what Nature gives, and everything ends up in the wine. The sense of place. The history, the man, the nature. You have to work hard to convince me that a standardised beverage, infused with all sort of aromas (included the trendy Cannabis wines which are having a blast in California in these days) is nearly comparable to what wine TRULY is.
I understand companies like the Pearson Brothers lawfully call their product wine. The US legislation allows it. And wine is very popular right now, so why not taking advantage of lawful marketing?
But, in my humble opinion, f you are producing a beverage from all sort of things, with all sort of aromas and components, you should call it drink, still soda, honey coke, or whatever fantasy name you like. But wine comes from latin, it means vinum, product of vitis vinifera fermentation. In a world where words seem not be important anymore, I say they are. Wine is wine. Not Cannabis infusion, not some kind of mixture recreated in a lab.
Dear wine lover, it’s up to you: stay informed about words, definitions and laws and choose what to drink! Cheers!
Live tasting of the honey wine on my Youtube channel, here