Table Wine

Table wine is one of those terms that everyone uses without thinking. It must have been a slow day, because I started thinking about it, and came to the conclusion I didn’t really know what it meant. Literally, the term means wine for the table; in other words wine to be drunk with food. Today that seems redundant, but at one time drinking the water could kill you and wine (and beer) was a much more general purpose drink. At that time all wine was not intended to be drunk with food and thus the distinction.

In France, Italy, Germany, Spain and many other European countries what goes on a wine label is highly regulated. The terms Vin de Table, Vino da Tavola, Tafelwein and Vino de la Mesa all translate as table wine. With some, this term represents the lowest quality level for wine. It's a catch-all designation for wines that can't qualify for higher classifications such as France's Appellation Controllee or Italy's Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). And, because the term is reserved for the lowest-quality wines, European table wines do not disclose their grape varieties, appellation (other than country), or vintage.

The term table wine is often equated with cheap wine (mouthwash as I am known to call it.) But that association is often unfair and undeserved. If you are fortunate enough to have visited the European countryside, you know there are simply wonderful table wines to be had there; most of which never make it to a retail store. But there are other, more commercial, exceptions. The emergence of new blended wines that didn’t conform to existing regulatory classifications threw the well-ordered Europeans into turmoil. A good example was the introduction of the now common blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon (aka Super Tuscan). When this blend first appeared in Italy, it had to be labeled Vino da Tavola because it didn’t conform to any of the existing designations for higher quality wines. Once the required uproar settled, the Italians created the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) rating to accommodate these fine, but nonconforming wines. So once again the meaning of Vino da Tavola was restored and the European world continued in its orbit.

Of course, in the United States, we took an entirely different approach. We don’t look at wine like the Europeans (there’s an understatement). In Europe, wine is regulated to insure quality. Here, wine is regulated to facilitate taxation. The federal government regulates alcoholic beverages based on their alcohol content. Our regulatory terminology has absolutely nothing to do with quality. Rather, any beverage made from grapes, with an alcohol content between 7 percent and 14 percent, is designated as, you guessed it, table wine. If the wine contains between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, the normal alcohol content for “wine”, it may simply show the term Table Wine on the label and doesn’t have to show its actual alcohol content. To add to the confusion, there is a trend in the United States toward wines with higher alcohol content and it is not unusual to see wines with alcohol levels approaching or exceeding 16 percent, especially red Zinfandels.

So, technically, all wine made in the United States is table wine. In practice however, in the United States the term has come to mean blended wine. The problem, as in Europe, is that some of the best American wines are blends and it makes little sense to put big, California, Bordeaux-style blends or GSM’s (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) with the large number of, shall we say, lesser quality blended wines from California and other areas of the United States. So while I do understand what the term table wine means, I’m not sure that I’m any less confused.