Change Agents

Wine Ingredient Labeling Is Coming to the EU

The new initiative will require brands to disclose what's in their wine

Jeff Siegel By October 11, 2021
image of wine bottles with QR codes
Illustration by Pix

Wine drinkers in Europe are about to get a chance to do something long denied to U.S. consumers — the opportunity to see what ingredients go into their wine.

The project, called U-Label, will use QR codes on wine and spirits bottles. Scan the code, and you’ll be taken to a website that lists ingredient and nutrition information for the product. 

What it does

The U-label effort, which started in September, is voluntary and features 16 wine and spirits companies. But it could serve as a template for proposed, wide-ranging label requirements that the EU is considering over the next several years. Wine companies in the trial include Champagne houses G.H. Mumm and Taittinger; after Nov. 1, any European producer can participate.

Currently, there are no plans to require U-Label on wine exported to the U.S., says Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, the secretary-general of the CEEV, the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins. CEEV, the continent’s leading wine trade group, worked with Europe’s leading spirits trade group, SpiritsEurope, to come up with the U-Label project.

But producers who want to include the label on wines sent to the U.S. can, he says, and U.S. consumers who bring wine back from Europe will also have access to the QR code website. “There will be no geo-blocking, so the information would be accessible from the U.S.,” says Sánchez Recarte.

What this means

U.S. wine drinkers would finally get to find out how much sulfite is in the wine they drink from France, Spain, Germany, and the like, as well as sugar levels and whether the wine contains anything other than grapes and yeast. Most EU countries have strict laws regulating what goes into their wine, but there are few ways for consumers who aren’t wine geeks to figure that out. The key, says Sánchez Recarte, is transparency, which the trade groups are eager to embrace ahead of a likely new EU mandate on labeling.

The U-Label will include calorie and other nutritional information, responsible drinking guidelines, a health warning, and details on sustainability. The cost to participate is about $290, making it affordable for almost any producer, regardless of size. 

Ingredients may include elements like ascorbic acid, oak chips, sulfur dioxide, and yeast nutrients. It’s unlikely that processing aids — anything used to make the wine, but which doesn’t remain in the final wine — will be listed.

The U-Label will include calorie and other nutritional information, responsible drinking guidelines, a health warning, and details on sustainability.

What about U.S. consumers?

This is a far cry from U.S. policy, given that winery trade groups have stonewalled ingredient and nutrition labeling reforms for almost 15 years. The objections include the cost, the space it would take on the label, and that it would confuse consumers. There’s also a sense that some large producers, who add grape juice concentrate to darken or sweeten their wines, would be reluctant to let consumers know there is more than grapes and yeast in their daily quaff.

Currently, federal law allows for voluntary labeling, but only a handful of producers use it. Some wine labels, which make calorie or nutrition claims, are required to use nutrition labels.

Still, not everyone in this country is opposed to the concept.

“At this moment, our producers have not asked this question with us,” says Patrick Mata of Olé & Obrigado, a Spanish and Portuguese importer.” In principle, though, we at Olé & Obrigado support all initiatives that are for transparency in terms of ingredients, winemaking, and farming practices. If we were to be asked, we will embrace this initiative.”

In fact, say those behind U-Label in the CEEV and SpirtsEurope, the U-Label initiative may offer a way for wine and spirits producers in any country to provide nutrition and ingredient information in a standard, low-cost way. This would not only benefit consumers, but allow producers to cut costs, since a QR code is much cheaper than adding a country-specific label to a bottle wherever they sell wine or spirits.

Which means, whether trade groups like it or not, transparency may be on its way.