Wineries sometimes produce different batches of wine under the same label. If you read a review of a wine that impresses you enough to go out and buy it and you are disappointed when you taste the wine it may be because you have tasted a different wine.
Why is this? Let’s talk about how wine is prepared for bottling. Wine is made in barrels and or stainless steel tanks. There will be subtle differences between wines in different barrels and tanks so the winery will mix the wines together before bottling. They do this by pumping the wines into large tanks to blend them to a consistency.
Imagine a medium sized winery called Winery X that makes a large volume standard Cabernet Sauvignon each year which they label as Winery X Cabernet Sauvignon. They also make more expensive ‘reserve’ Cabernets from the best of the grapes they grow themselves. Wine from the younger, less good, grapes goes into their standard wine but over the years they have built up a following for it so they also buy in grapes from neighbouring vineyards.
They have an agreement with a supermarket chain that usually buys two tankfuls of the standard Cabernet every year and they make three tanks of the standard, so they sell the remaining tankful to local stores and restaurants and at the winery to visitors. As they don’t always sell the entire third tank they bottle half of it and keep the remaining half in the tank. If there is sufficient demand they’ll bottle it later, otherwise they’ll sell if off cheap in bulk.
This year a critic from a respected publication visits the winery, tastes the newly bottled vintage and writes a good review with a high score. The winery sells out of the half tank they’ve bottled and prepare to bottle the remaining half tank. Then they get a call from the supermarket buyer. The supermarket can’t meet demand for their wine and is asking to buy another tankful.
Winery X visits neighbouring wineries to taste and buy their excess wine which they then blend with the half tank of their wine. Now they have an additional tankful of wine they can bottle to meet the supermarket’s order. This wine has the same label but the wine inside isn’t exactly the same as the first consignment although the winemakers have done their best to blend the various components to try and achieve the same taste.
Then Winery X gets a call informing them their standard Cabernet Sauvignon has won a prestigious competition. Every year when they bottled the vintage they submit wines to various competitions.
The winery are getting calls from their regular customers, the stores and restaurants that had faithfully bought their wines for years, asking for more, and the supermarket is also demanding more.
Winery X goes out and buys wines from other wineries which they blend and bottle under the same label. But again the wine is not exactly the same as the first batch that was reviewed and which won the competition.
The label says ‘Produced and Bottled by Winery X’, the appellation, variety and vintage information is correct so have the winery done anything dishonest?
The above scenario frequently happens, usually without anyone being any wiser.
But there have been recent cases where someone has noticed that the wine on the store shelf isn’t the same as a competition winner.
Wither Hills Winery in New Zealand makes several batches of their big selling Sauvignon Blanc: in 2006 an analysis showed that a prize winning wine was not the same as those on sale to the public. The managing director and chief winemaker resigned. In 2010 South African journalist Tim James noticed differences between the analysis of a Klein Zalze Chenin Blanc wine that won a competition and the analysis for the same wine shown on the winery website. It transpired that there were three different batches. The winning wine was made from grapes picked before major rain storms stopped harvesting, the others came from after.
Thus for mass market wines it is not worth being over-reliant on reviews and critics scores as they may have tasted a different wine.
What do you think? Discuss on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.