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Is this wine any good or not?

It seems a simple idea – to read the label on a bottle of wine and to understand what the bottle contains (and if it’s worth drinking). The reality is quite the opposite. Wine growers (perhaps understandably) do their best to confuse the buyer, but the compilers of reference works about wine are no better. Read on for more details.

The bottle was a red wine from Spain (I gathered that much). The book I consulted was Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016 (not the latest edition, but I would be surprised if the faults I identify have been fixed in subsequent editions).

This wine was clearly stated to be “Rioja”, and underneath it, “denominacion de origen calificada”. Right, this is an official designation for a kind of wine – so I looked it up. “Rioja” is listed, varying from one star (the minimum) to four stars (the maximum) – that covers most bases. There is a box describing “Rioja”, which also uses the term “Rio” –I am guessing it means the same thing.

Further down the label I read “Garnacha”. There is no entry for Garnacha in the Spain section, although, I later discovered, there is a section on grape varieties. I can perhaps be forgiven for not finding things, since words in SMALL CAPITALS in Johnson might mean a grape variety, or it might mean a link to another entry in the country section. Reference work tip: don’t use ambiguous signalling. It makes for disgruntled users.

The blame is not entirely with the wine manuals; the wine producers are themselves devious. I notice an official French AC designation “Coteaux Bourgignons” which is described by Johnson as being introduced in 2011: “main take-up is hard-to-sell basic Beaujolais (which is neither from Coteaux nor Bourgignons) reclassified under this sexier name.”

But to increase the confusion, a designated wine, such as Rioja, can contain a wide variety of grapes. From the Wikipedia entry on “Rioja”, there are seven allowed varieties of grape for Rioja wine, and as if this isn’t enough, a further seven types of grape have been allowed since 2007. None of this is mentioned in “the world’s best selling wine guide” (from the blurb on the jacket). Perhaps it’s not surprising that the quality of Rioja varies from the worst to the best. And perhaps it’s not surprising that I, despite my small collection of wine manuals, am none the wiser when it comes to choosing a bottle.  Actually, the label at the top, “Campo Viejo”, which is a brand name, is probably as good a way of identifying the wine as any. But with some 4,000 wine producers in Spain, it will take me a long time to identify if the name is one I recognize. But in the meantime, next time I see “Rioja” on a label I will look elsewhere.