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What's a Table Wine? Different Meanings from Old World to New World
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed February 4, 2004. For more information go to

Today's question is a joke, right? "Table wine" is wine for the dinner table. Duh! Well, not quite.

Inspired by an exceptional French "Vin de table," let's devote today's column to a quick look at the term "table wine," which turns out to be a bit more complicated than you might think.

Historically, the term means just what it says: Wine intended to be consumed with food, as indeed most wines are. But as a specific, legal definition, "Table Wine" confuses us by taking a distinctly different direction in the New World than it did in Europe.

In France, Italy, Germany, Spain and most other European wine-producing countries, "Vin de Table," "Vino da Tavola," "Tafelwein" and "Vino de la Mesa" all translate as table wine.

With some variations - which are diminishing as the European Union gradually conforms regulations among its members - this simply reflects the lowest level of quality for commercial wine. It's a least-common-denominator label for wines made from grapes or regions that can't qualify for higher classifications like France's "Appellation Controllee" or Italy's "Denominazione di Origine Controllata" (DOC).

This often translates to cheap wine or even, well, swill. But notable exceptions occur, sometimes when a producer elects to go against tradition and make a high-end wine that simply doesn't fit the standards required for classification. This occurred with the early Super Tuscans, which could not earn DOC status because they used non-traditional grapes or wine-making practices, so their producers claimed the basic "Vino da Tavola" in a conscious act of reverse snobbery. More recently, the intermediate "Indicazione Geografica Tipica" (IGT) rating accommodates these fine Italian wines, putting "Vino da Tavola" back in its place.

Because the term is reserved for the lowest-quality wines, European "table wines" may not disclose the grape varieties used, the geographical source of the grapes (except for the country), or the vintage.

In the U.S., regulatory authorities went in an entirely different direction. Under federal wine-labeling rules, which categorize wines on the basis of alcoholic content for taxation, the term has absolutely nothing to do with quality. Rather, any wine made from grapes, with alcoholic content between 7 percent and 14 percent by volume, is regulated as table wine. In fact, if the wine contains between 11 percent and 14 percent alcohol - considered the normal range for dinner wine - it may simply bear "Table Wine" on the label and need not specify its actual alcohol level. Just to make things a little more complicated, by the way, wines over 14 percent in the U.S. are technically considered "Dessert Wine," even if they are not sweet.


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