Peter on R4 You & Yours

(by peter)

Today I had a chat to Winifred Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme.

The topic at hand was the labelling of alcohol levels on wine – specifically some new research indicating that wine producers routinely mis-declare alcohol levels.

You can listen to the show via a BBC podcast. (Our bit starts at 27:25.)

The research in question was carried out by the American Association of Wine Economists, in part based on 18-years of data from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, one of the few importing bodies to measure alcohol levels of the wines it imports. You can read the report by clicking here.

Over 129,000 wines from all over the world were included in the data set. The three main findings of the report are as follows:

1) That alcohol levels in wine have generally been rising in recent years – between 1.5% and 16% in real terms over 16 years, the equivalent of 0.2-2% difference in alcohol level in your average bottle of 12% or 13% wine.

2) That the rise in alcohol levels is not, as some producers claim, the result of climate change (the rise in temperatures is simply not enough to explain such a rise in alcohol).

3) That producers routinely mis-declare alcohol levels – typically under-declaring for high strength wine and over-declaring for lower strength wine.

To my mind, the really interesting bit is the last point – but the report offers no hard answers as to why. Instead it speculates that it’s all a question of marketing – wine drinkers like the soft, rich taste of alcohol but equally don’t want to think that they’re drinking too much. So quoting lower for higher strength stuff serves both ends… Or, in the case of over-quoting for lesser strength wine, the impression of ripeness and richness is conferred on the product.

Either way, the marketing impression is subtly influencing the consumer perception before a drop of wine has been tasted. Hence the report’s title: ‘Splendide mendax’ (ie the splendid lie). As the report concludes, ‘consumers choose to pay winemakers to lie to them’.

As I said on the air, it’s important to note than this practice is not illegal. What is is, by contrast, is unethical.

Every country has a legal error tolerance for alcohol labelling. In the EU it’s plus or minus 0.5%. In the US, for wines under 14%, it’s as high as 1.5% (which is scandalous in my view).

But the AAWE’s findings indicate that the trend to mis-declare alcohol levels is an established and deliberate one. And this is totally unacceptable. Wine drinkers should be given all the necessary information for them to make informed choices about which wine to buy and drink – it shouldn’t be up to a marketeer to decide that, just because of perceived consumer trends, they will label the alcohol level as they see fit.

As my mum said after hearing the programme – it’s shocking.

Wine producers should be encouraged to declare exact alcohol levels. It’s the responsible thing to do. Yes it may cost more in label printing – but surely there is marketing capital for any producer to be had in doing the responsible and right thing by their customer base. (It may also cost more in tax – though this principally relates to the US, where there are advantageous tax rates under 14% ABV – but the same rule must still apply.)

The report indicates that Argentina, Chile and the US are some of the most culpable countries when it comes to under-declaring alcohol. But this is not a country-specific problem – more one of outmoded and arrogant attitudes on the parts of producers the world over towards consumers.

To my mind, legislation regarding alcohol labelling tolerances should be tightened up and producers should firmly be encouraged to label accurately and give wine drinkers as much information as possible to help them make an informed choice. At the same time, legislation should encourage lower-alcohol wine categories – for example, in the UK, not just having one tax rate for everything between 5.5% and 15%.

In this household, we are increasingly gravitating towards wines with naturally lower alcohol levels but which are still balanced, refreshing, food-friendly and satisfying. Hopefully the kind of wines whose producers shouldn’t need to lie about the exact nature of the product in the bottle…

Post script: this piece has since been picked up – perhaps inevitably – by the Daily Mail. It also made it into Radio 4’s Today programme as well as The Guardian.