Wines, with and without

Champagne is all the rage now and sales are up and up; we can look forward to better versions of Italy’s most famous wine, Chianti; and a wine without alcohol–but a real fermented wine nonetheless–is being test-marketed in California and other Western states by the Seagram wine company.

In the last few years an oversupply of wine and grapes, in Europe and here at home, has made it imperative to find something to spark additional sales. So the wine and grapes are put to use in making champagne, which in turn is being heavily promoted to the public as an all-year festive drink rather than as something for special occasions only. In the United States, sales of sparkling wine have gone up around 13 per cent since 1980, while sales of table wine languished–proving that the American public is ready to spend money on the pricier potion. Imports now account for 25 per cent of American bubbly sales, up from 16 per cent in 1980. The old established California producers are Korbel and Schramsberg, known for very fine wines; and now well-know wine producers like Sebastiani and Robert Mondavi are also getting themselves into the profitable sparkling-wine business.

Champaign-being-pored-into-glasses

By the way, only the stuff made in the French region of Champagne from certain grapes can call itself Champagne, according to French law. Europeans honor this French law by calling their sparkling wines Sekt if they are German, or Spumante if Italian, but Americans do not. To the sorrow the United States can, and usually does, call his bubbly wines Champagne. In turn, European Champagne houses like Piper Heidsieck and Mumm are setting up shop and vineyards in California in increasing numbers, following the enormous and well-deserved success the French house Moet-Hennessy has had with its Napa Valley Domaine Chandon.

Chianti sales have been lagging everywhere for the past few years for a number of reasons. For one thing, more than one thousand individual producers have made their wines in a highly individualistic manner, resulting in wines that can be young, fruity, velvety, light, full-bodied, heavy, or rich and still go under the famed Chianti name. For another, Chianti, now dignifiedly bottled in Bordeaux-type bottles, is no longer instantly recognizable as it was when sold in the straw-covered, round-bottomed bottle known as a fiasco. (Remeber the dripping candle stuck in the fiasco to give an Italian atmosphere to dingy surroundings?) But now the law that specifies the kinds and amounts of red and white grapes that must be used to make a Chianti legally entitled to the name has been changed. The new formula is far more flexible, and yet also stricter in matters such as, among other things, the amount of white grapes (which are cheap and plentiful) allowed in the wine.

Bordeaux claret case
Bordeaux claret case

The new law will not produce heavenly wines all round, but it will give producers the chance to experiment with a new style of red wine that has been very successful since 1971 or so. I am speaking of Tignanello, made by the great Tuscan wine producer Marchesi Antinori–a splendid, Bordeaux-type wine. The Antinoris are one of Florence’s noblest and most ancient families, and innovative winemakers as well. For some 15 years, along with other honorable Chianti producers, they have pushed for a new Chianti formula. The new law starts with the 1984 harvest, so that it will be some time before we can buy the new improved Chiantis. Meantime, I suggest buying the 1978 Chianti Riservas, which can be found for well under $15, and even as little as $10; be sure to look for the Chianti classico black-rooster label on the bottle and try to buy a Chianti classico riserva–riserva being the sign of longer aging and better winemaking practices. (If you want to know more about the long and involved Chianti story, write me and I will explain.)

The House of Joseph E. Seagram, which dispenses wine and about 175 brands of spirits (Seagram Ltd. of Montreal is the parent company, with 1983 revenues of around $2.5 billion, I’ve read), has gone into the production of a nonalcoholic wine that is real wine but without the kick. I read about it in Business Week and was faschinated, because nonalcoholic wines from Europe and Australia have never caught on in the United States. Neither have the so-called “light” wines, with about 7 to 9 per cent alcohol (compared to the regular 10 to 12 per cent), much to the sorrow of their makers, who spent millions advertising them. Now the huge California grape surplus that has confronted Seagram’s wine operations (Paul Masson and Taylor California Wine Cellars) is being used for this boozeless libation currently being test-marketed, as I say, in California and some other Western states.

St. Regis, as the new wine is called, is made like real wine from varietal grapes like French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, and others. Then the alcohol is extracted through a process of controlled heat application. The grapes used are fully matured, not like the unripened grapes–which yield less alcohol but lack flavor–that are used for many of the low-alcohol wines. St. Regis uses a patented process for its wine (see Business Week, July 9), producing a drink low in calories (less than half the amount in most regular white wines) but high in what St. Regis calls carbohydrates (8.1 grams per 100 milliliters), which I take it means largely residual sugar.

The drink is a pleasant, fresh-tasting, sweetish, rather fruity wine (the smell is not as pleasant as the taste), and it does indeed taste like wine. I tested St. Regis on a number of my wine-loving and wine-knowing friends, and none of them recognized the absence of alcohol, though a few objected to the slight carbonization. If it will catch on in the youth market, more power to it, and fewer drunk-driving accidents for all of us. It is not expensive either, around $3 a bottle. Why Seagram in New York, with the exception of one officer, was so infinitely coy and secretive about St. Regis nonalcoholic wine I shall never know. But they did send me two bottles, since I could not buy them here in New York, and I am enthusiastic, as are my granddaughters in California who, wine glass in hand, can now look as sophisticated as they wish in perfect safety.

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