Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

But back to the second part of your question, Baffled: Wines that look different, but taste the same. Can you have the same wine in different bottles? If you had asked me this last year I would have guessed no—but I would have been wrong. I spoke with one wine importer who refused to be named for this story, for fear of losing his clients. "Eighty percent of what's on the shelf in the Australian section is large corporate producers who bottle for different labels," he told me. "And sometimes the same wine for different labels.

"I talked to one wine maker, he told me, 'I can make you whatever you want. You want a Yellow Tail-style? A Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz style? What do you want? Name the wine, we'll make it for you.'" Since the Australian winemaker in question had all the formulas, and collected and managed the exact grapes that went into said brand-name wines, this was no idle boast.

Once you get into a restaurant wine list, things get even worse. Did you ever see a restaurant with its own wine label, say, "Bistro Dara Merlot"? That might well just be a well-known mass-market wine with a specialty label slapped on the bottle. Until now I had always believed the hype about other high-ticket restaurant-only specialty bottlings, the ones that are trumpeted as being the best of the best, simply made in runs too small for the general public. Several of my wine-industry sources told me that they suspect that some of those specialty bottles actually contain inferior wines that would never fetch such prices in the open market.

Are they right? I talked to half a dozen local pros and couldn't get a straight answer, so Baffled, please know not only are you not crazy, but some of the things you feel foolish for not knowing the answer to are in fact questions the brightest minds in the business can't answer. In the pirate seas of today's less expensive wines, sometimes they do all taste and look the same, or different, willy nilly.

Dear Dara,

Why do the wine bottles have different shapes?

—Noticing Nabobs of Nothingness, but Still Curious

Dear Noticing,

If you think wine is a hassle now, please know that a couple of hundred years ago various governments thought the whole bottled-at-the-chateau idea was itself rife for fraud. So if you wanted wine, you'd have to have your own bottles manufactured and send them to the chateau to be filled and sealed. (Fun fact: Some think that our standard wine-bottle size descends not from any particular big idea, just from the average size of a 19th-century glassblower's exhale.)

The different shapes of wine bottles, and the different colors, have something to do with whim and branding. It was considered attractive to package Chianti in wicker-bottom bottles, for instance, until it wasn't. And it has something to do with practical concerns. You need heavier bottles to counteract the internal pressure generated by Champagne, for instance, and darker bottles to protect age-worthy wines from light, which speeds deterioration. You'll often find wines meant to be drunk young, like rosés or fresh whites, packed in colorless glass, which is both less expensive than dark glass and shows off the wine's color.

Since we're talking fraud, though, please direct some attention to all the rigmarole around the cork. First there's the cork, which almost always has the name of the vineyard printed on it. Then there's a wax or foil seal that protects the cork. And sometimes there may even be an additional paper seal imprinted with government guarantees or tracking numbers. You know what all of this is? It's all the best fraud-protection devices of an earlier time: The seal and printed cork are your guarantee that your wine merchant or restaurant hasn't served someone else your Opus One and topped up the bottle with a box of Franzia.

Of course, none of this fraud protection could have envisioned a world where one wine-making facility would make everyone's wine, but it's interesting to consider that fraud protection has been an issue as long as wine has been sold. Old wine in new bottles indeed!

Dear Dara,

Why is all the cheap wine Australian? Or, you know what I mean.

—Wondering in Minneapolis

Dear Wondering,

We now have to ask the Libertarians to leave the room, lest they bust various veins in rage. It all started with government. First, in the 1960s, Australia decided it would have not a desert interior, but a green and verdant one—like the British Isles of their historical memory? Dunno. In any event, they started to build dams like crazy, and today three-quarters of the water in Australia goes to irrigation. A 2004 article in the Australian, an Aussie newspaper, said the Aussies use 900 liters of water per person per day, compared to us North Americans, who use 600 liters a day. (I'm guessing they added Canada in to make us feel better, but still.)

Anyhoo, in 1993, to speed up the process of turning their desert interior into a green and verdant vine land, they instituted a tax shelter that, literally, has daily ramifications in the liquor stores of Duluth, Bloomington, and all places in between. The Australian government changed its tax laws so that growers could write off the expense of buying and planting grape vines over the course of four years, instead of over the lifetime of the vines. Since they would be writing off the cost of this buying and planting before the grapes bore fruit, it became a massive loss for tax purposes, and thus sheltered other income. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the actual grape planting really got rolling; between 1997 and 2001 Australia's wine plantings almost doubled.

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