A Transparent Wine

An Argentine winemaker told me recently that he grew up in a wine culture where his parents had wine on the table every night but nobody knew what was in the bottle – it was, in essence, generic red wine. My winemaker friend said that approach would never work today – no matter how much we want to believe terroir, the place where the wine is grown, dictates much of a wine’s quality, most consumers still want to know what’s in the bottle.

Even if you prefer saturated red wines to limpid whites, most wine lovers will embrace transparency at least in labeling. Treasury Wine Estates aims to meet that consumer wish with a new initiative announced today: they are going to list calorie information on the back label of every wine in their portfolio. This is a strictly voluntary move that TWE says is a first in the wine industry – a few wineries have included calorie information on individual wines, but this is the first time a company commits to doing it for every wine it produces.

“We recognize that consumers are increasingly interested in accessing the facts on calorie content to help them make more informed choices on alcohol consumption,” said TWE General Manager for Europe, Dan Townsend. “We believe a commitment to providing calorie information on our brands is a positive step that leads the wine industry in responding to consumer interests in this important area.” 

With Treasury making wine in Australia and the U.S. and selling wine in more than 70 countries, this is a substantial commitment. This does not mean Treasury is making low-calorie wine – that is another effort entirely.  The trend has a foothold in Europe, boosted by tax incentives for lower alcohol production, but it has yet to catch on with U.S. wine drinkers who appear to associate lower calories with less luxury and prestige.  A survey by Wine Intelligence two years ago indicated that American consumers are suspicious of the quality of low-calorie wines.

 The components of wine (Photo Credit:  Wine Folly

The components of wine (Photo Credit: Wine Folly

So how many calories does a glass of wine have and is it important to know? I think it helps because the calorie content varies widely in wines. Depending on how much alcohol the wine contains, how sweet it is and the size of the serving, one glass could range from 110 calories to over 300 calories. 

Why the wide swing? Understand first that alcohol contains a lot of calories – almost twice as many calories gram for gram as sugar. This means that a Spätlese from the Mosel (a slightly sweet riesling) might have fewer calories than a bone dry Chablis simply because the sweeter riesling is only 7 percent alcohol and the Chablis is 13 percent. Don’t even get me started on the Port I love so much, with its 20 percent alcohol and high sugar content! 

While most of the calories in a glass of wine do come from the alcohol, there is often, especially in white wine, a small amount of “residual sugar” to give it body and texture. There is an adage in the wine industry that consumers talk dry and drink sweet, meaning most of us are loathe to drink sweet wine, but in fact, our taste buds want a small amount of sugar to balance the acidity in wine. It’s the same reason people add sugar to coffee – it makes the acidity more palatable. And speaking of coffee, the discussion over calories in wine has me rethinking my breakfast choices, now that I know I can have my grande flat white at Starbucks with its 220 calories…or a glass of very good brut Champagne at 120 calories. Or how about a Burger King Whopper at 660 calories, or my liquid lunch of three glasses of a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape that will only run 500 calories, which still leaves me room for a glass of bubbles.  Lyn’s Champagne Diet – it has a nice ring to it for the holidays, and I feel the weight falling off me already.

I could have a Starbuck Flat White, or two glasses of Champagne for the same calories. No contest

If residual sugar in wine is often the wild card in calculating calories, it is because producers seldom reveal it. We do know the approximate alcohol content because every country requires the alcohol percentage to be divulged on a wine label, but even that is a bit vague. Partly to save taxes and partly to avoid the stigma attached to high-alcohol wines, in many countries producers are allowed to under- or over-state the alcohol content (often abbreviated as ABV, or Alcohol by Volume) by a full one percent – that is . Feeling good you had a 13 percent ABV wine last night? It could have been 14 percent (adding an additional 9 calories) and you wouldn’t have known

This is where Treasury’s new effort will help by removing the guesswork from all those wide swings and variables in sugar and alcohol. Treasury’s labeling addition begin with the 2016 vintage, meaning the information will be showing up on youthful Aussie and Kiwi whites released in late 2016 (remember, the Southern Hemisphere harvest begins in February). While the information will initially only be included on labels for wines released in Europe (where Treasury says there is “heightened consumer interest” in having access to the information), it will also be available online on a dedicated website.

Diageo, another huge player in the alcoholic beverage field (primarily in spirits), committed earlier this year to providing a “serving facts” product panel on their bottles. This panel will give not only calorie data but additional nutrition information as well. It has so far only been approved for use in the U.S. but Diageo hopes to expand its availability worldwide as soon as they get regulatory approval.

And I need to get another glass of Champagne to usher in the holiday season – my diet can afford it.

You can download the full Treasury Wine Estates press release here