Comment - The Losh Cause – Ageing disgracefully
While it may be acceptable for people to be a little vague about their age, Chris Losh believes loose terminology about age on bottles of wine or spirits is deliberately misleading consumers, and should be stamped out.
How old is old? When I was 20 I thought 40 was pretty aged. A week away from my 40th birthday, however, I see things rather differently, preferring instead to view 70 as the benchmark of respectable decrepitude. My parents, no doubt, see things rather differently, and in 30 years' time I'm sure I will too.
So perceptions of age can be relative, and as it's a sensitive issue vanity can lead to a degree of obfuscation when it comes to defining age as a number.
The drinks industry also seems to have a tendency to blur matters when it comes to pinning down age in precise terms, though the temptation is to round up rather than down.
Here, the whisky industry should be applauded. Showing a Calvinist honesty that borders on the masochistic, the age statement on a bottle of Scotch represents the age of the youngest spirit in the bottle. The customer is in no way confused, misled or otherwise misdirected.
Cognac's use of names to supplant straight age statements is equally honest, but less clear to consumers. However, rum's classification system is, frankly, hopeless. Some producers use a minimum age, others go on an average, and most agree that the system is so under-regulated as to be more or less arbitrary anyway.
Rum, of course, is not a geographically-defined product in the way that Scotch and Cognac are, but there is surely room for a Caribbean appellation that is able to police these things. Alas, I suspect this will require more consensual initiative than is possible in such a fragmented region.
There is, for instance, a Caribbean Rum Marque now, but it's voluntary, and is administered by the West Indian Rum and Spirit Association, which exists to oversee the spending of the EU rebate money, rather than enforce legislative guidelines.
Rum's lack of independent policing might give it some rock 'n' roll kudos among aficionados, but it leaves real latitude for misleading the less well-educated consumer. Do you know which 12-year-old rums are 'genuine', and which have a small percentage of old stuff and lashings of caramel? No? Well, what chance does Joe Public have?
Nor is such casuistry confined to the spirits industry. Ordinary punters often ask me what 'reserve' means on a wine label. And the answer, outside places like Rioja or Chianti that have incredibly strict definitions, can be anything from "it depends" to "nothing, frankly".
It might mean "this is made with slightly better grapes" or "this wine has a touch of oak". Or it might just as easily be a cynical attempt to charge 30% more for a bottle of rubbish by chucking in an arbitrary quality cue. Riojan producers often grumble about the rigid nature of their classification system, but at least you know what you're getting.
The agonies surrounding 'reserve' are bad enough, but how do you go about classifying that other increasingly-trendy quality cue, 'old vines'? It's a term I've seen appearing on more and more bottles, and it brings us neatly back to my opening question: how old is old? No self-respecting Frenchman would describe his vines as old unless they were 40-odd, but I've tried 'viñas viejas' from Chilean vines that were still teenagers.
Fortunately, it's not all bad news. The well-respected Australian producer Yalumba has decided to bring an element of order to the chaos by pinning specific vine ages to three different descriptors. As of the 2007 vintage, the Barossa winery will use 'old vines' for vines over 35 years, 'antique' for those over 70, and centenarian for those over 100-years-old.
"In Australia we are custodians to some of the oldest grapevines in the world, and not enough people embrace this fact," says Yalumba owner, Michael Hill Smith. The initiative, in fact, is not so much a marketing gimmick as a way to make Aussie growers think more positively about older vines and stop them from pulling them out in favour of higher-yielding younger ones.
Obviously, one winery alone is not going to make a difference, and this being Australia, the definitions won't be legally ratified, so there's nothing to stop less scrupulous producers using the terms for less strictly-controlled vines. But Hill Smith is hopeful that others will come on board and adopt the system. I hope he's right.
I'm not a great one for over-regulation, but I do think we need a campaign to remove meaningless puff from drinks labels, and start actually hammering down what some of these terms mean.
If a descriptor isn't quantifiable, it shouldn't be there. The industry owes the public that much…
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