Using a grape variety on an American wine label is not mandatory, but many winemakers choose to do so for several reasons, such as perception of quality to the consumer. Using or naming the variety on the wine label may also convey a better story about what is in the bottle.
There are a number of federal regulations that govern grape varieties, ranging from the percentage of grapes that must be used in a wine to what specific varieties can be used on an American wine label. This article discusses some of the regulatory concerns on using grape varieties in American wines.
TTB regulations require a wine label have a class/type designation, including (but not limited to) “Red Wine,” “Red Table Wine,” “White Wine,” or “Rosé Wine.” Instead of using these terms as the type designation on a wine label, the grape variety can actually function as the wine’s type designation when the variety is named on the label. A single variety can be used as the type designation if not less than 75% of the wine in the container derived from the grapes of the variety (with some exceptions, such as Vitis labrusca varieties). 27 CFR 4.23(b). Further, the wine must be labeled with an appellation of origin and the entire 75% of the grapes must have been grown within the appellation. 27 CFR 4.23(a)–(b).
Two or more varieties can be listed on the label and used as the type designation, but the wine must meet several requirements. First, all grapes used to make the wine must be of the labeled varieties. 27 CFR 4.23(d)(1). Second, the percentage of the wine derived from each variety must be shown (i.e., adding up to 100%, with a tolerance of plus or minus 2%). 27 CFR 4.23(d)(2). Third, if the wine is labeled with a multicounty or multistate appellation of origin, the percentage of wine derived from each variety from each county or state, respectively, must be shown on the label. 27 CFR 4.23(d)(3).
Are there restrictions on what grape varieties American wines can use as their type designation? Yes, absolutely. TTB requires that a grape variety be approved by the Agency’s Administrator if it is to be used as a type designation on a wine label. 27 CFR 4.23(e). Currently, a list of approved varieties that can be used on American wine labels appears in 27 CFR 4.91. Some of the approved varieties include, but are certainly not limited to, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Lambrusco, Petit Verdot, Syrah (Shiraz), and Vidal Blanc.
All of that seems straightforward for grape varieties listed on TTB’s list of approved grape varieties, but what happens when a winemaker or vintner wants to use a variety on a label that is not listed as an approved variety? Well, that changes the process significantly. A non-approved variety cannot be used as a type designation on an American wine label.
But that is not necessarily the end. If a winemaker wants to use a non-approved variety as the type designation, they can petition to TTB for the approval of the grape variety name. 27 CFR 4.93 allows an interested party to petition to TTB and requires the petitioner to show evidence that: (1) the grape variety is accepted; (2) the name for identifying the grape variety is valid; (3) the variety is used or will be used in winemaking; and (4) the variety is grown and used in the United States. Despite submitting such evidence, 27 CFR 4.93(c) maintains that the Administrator will not approve the grape variety name if: the name (1) has been previously used for a different grape variety; (2) contains a term or name found to be misleading; or (3) the name contains the term “Riesling.”
Documentation submitted to TTB by way of a petition can include a reference to a publication of the name of the variety in a scientific or professional journal of horticulture or published by a professional, scientific winegrowers’ organization; reference to a plant patent; and information outlining the commercial potential of the variety (e.g., acreage planted and its location or market studies). In the past, to show commercial potential of the variety, petitions have included information on the disease resistance of the proposed variety, its budding and ripening patterns, the suitability of the variety in particular climates or for regions with shorter or longer growing seasons, the pH and brix of the variety, whether the variety is easy to graft, and the vigorousness of the variety. Petitions have also included information from respected publications, such as The Oxford Companion to Wine.
After a petition is submitted to and reviewed by TTB, the agency will issue an administrative approval if the grape variety is approved. Effectively, this means that TTB will approve labels that use the grape variety name, but such approvals are valid for labels used in the U.S. market and do not imply that such names are acceptable in other countries. Further, after issuing its administrative approval, TTB will propose rulemaking by publishing a notice in the Federal Register to add the grape variety name to the list of approved grape variety names that appear in 27 CFR 4.91. This process invites the public to comment on whether the administratively approved grape variety should be recognized as an approved grape variety in 27 CFR 4.91. Public comment may or may not influence the agency to approve the variety. An interesting point to consider is TTB may ask for public comment on varieties whose petitions the Agency denied.
After completing the rulemaking process, should the Agency decide for any reason not to add the grape name to the approved list, any final rulemaking action will supersede its administrative approval.
The above outlines the process for gaining administrative approval of a new grape variety. One of my most recent tasks was to assist a client with obtaining TTB approval of a grape variety for use on American wines by submitting a petition to TTB. The process was a great reminder of TTB’s administrative procedures, and was also a good way to put both law and industry knowledge to work.
For more information on wine or alcohol law, or submitting a varietal petition to TTB, please contact Lindsey Zahn.
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is for general information purposes only, is not intended to constitute legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship results. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice.