How to Read A Wine Label

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Glass and bottle of red wine with tagFor those of us who have only recently begun our wine interests, the wine section of grocery stores is still an overwhelming experience. We’re still learning to appreciate the nuances, but a dozen kinds of cabernet sauvignon still seems excessive. We’ve invested in a wine cooler, but we have no idea what to fill it with. In order to better understand the wine we’re tasting, let’s look at the kind of information provided on wine labels and how it will help us enjoy the tasting experience.

Never judge a book by its cover, but feel free to judge a wine by its label. Wine labels give a vast amount of information that can show us what to expect in the wine. A Wine Enthusiast article from March 2006 showed that the latest trend in wine labeling is to make the labels playful and funny, so even the entertainment value of a wine label can be part of the decision. It can give the variety, the region it was made, who made it, the alcohol percentage, and the year it was produced. Sometimes it even states the vineyard, tasting notes, and history of the company that produced it. Before you buy, take a look at the label to get a good indication of what this wine has to offer to your tasting experience.

Varietals

Varietals are always listed on the bottle, but they are not always the primary focus of the label. Varietals are wines made from a single grape type. In order to be considered part of that varietal, the wine must be at least 75% from the grape listed. Some bottles will list exactly what percentage a grape was used in the blend. Naming this variety on the wine label will help you select the type of wine that you like. These are not the same as vine varieties because vine varieties refer to the type of grape, while varietals refers to the type of wine made from that grape. The term was first coined by Maynard Amerine at the University of California, Davis to promote the best vine varieties among growers after Prohibition. Labeling according to the varietal is perhaps the most popular method on the market today, so this is the single biggest factor in the decision-making process. Tasting the different varietals can help you narrow down your interests and preferences, so that you can then devote your time and energy to finding the best of that much-enjoyed varietal.

Regions: Old World vs. New World

The “Old World” sounds like what it is, the regions that have been producing wine with a long-established tradition. This includes parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, but especially France, Italy, and Germany. The Old World wines tend to focus on terroir, which is the set of characteristics that describe the region, such as soil, geography, and climate. The terroir is what gives the wine its unique taste and gives the wine a sense of place. Translated, terroir means “sense of place,” so the term is appropriate for describing the sum of the effects that the wine’s locality has on it. The land where grapes are grown gives qualities to the grapes that are unique to the growing site. These Old World regions will identify their wines by their terroir on the label.

French and Italian wines will also certify their place of origin. AOC on a French bottle of wine translates to “controlled designation of origin” and certifies that it came from the French geographical region that the label lists. The Italian certification also guarantees the geographical region, but is called the DOC.

The “New World” refers to newer wine-producing regions. This includes Australia, Chile, Argentine, the United States, and even South Africa. These regions focus less on terroir and the grapes are typically grown in hotter climates here. Most of these labels will use the grape type on the label rather than the region. Traditionally, New World Wines often use names of well-known European regions on their labels to suggest to the consumer how the wine will taste. However, this practice has declined with the increased use of varietal labeling, in which the wine label denotes the wine produced by a particular vine or grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Merlot. “Cleanskins” are wines that do not indicate the winery or winemaker’s name on the label, instead choosing to identify only the type of wine and type of grapes used. These are common in New World wines, especially Australian wines.

Below is a guide to which countries are considered Old World or New World, along with the types of grapes that are grown there.

Country Grapes

Old World

France Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay
Italy Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Moscato, Pinot Grigio
Germany Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner
Spain Tempranillo, Albarino, Garnacha, Palomino

New World

United States Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel
Argentina Malbec, Bonarda
Chile Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc
Australia Shiraz, Chardonnay
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir
South Africa Pinotage, Chenin Blanc

Producer

The brand name is always listed on the bottle. If it’s not, then the type of wine is considered the “brand.” The label will tell the name and location of the company that produced and bottled it. This is important because wine will taste different based on the producer. “Mis en bouteille au chateau” or “mis au domaine” denote that the wine was bottled on the estate where it was grown and produced. This can sometimes be an indicator of quality and you can have a little more assurance as to the value of the bottle. Once you find a particularly good bottle of wine, look for other wines by the same producer. Often, you’ll discover different wines that you like because of that producer’s method of production.

Alcohol Percentage

This designates the alcohol content by volume. However, the percentages can be a higher or lower by up to 1.5%. Any wine that has less than 14% can leave the actual number off the label, but will instead note it as “table wine.” Most wine end up between 12 and 15%, but different types of wines have different averages. The wines with the highest alcohol content are sherry, port, Madeira, and fortified wines. The lowest alcohol content of any wine type is the Moscato d’Asti.

Vintage

Vintage dates are not always important and they are optional to list on the label. Sherry bottles do not include vintage dates at all. Champagne is often a blend of multiple years, so the vintage is from several different years. Port is another exception to the rule because it only lists vintages during especially successful years. However, sometimes the vintage can be an indicator of the quality of the bottle. If it was a successful year for that producer, look for that year because it will probably be of superior quality to years that weren’t successful. If you’ve already found a brand or varietal that you are particularly pleased with, try different years to see if there is any improvement in taste from year to year.

 

Wine BottleIn addition to these main designations on the wine label, bottles can also give the name of the vineyard, notes about the taste, or additional certifications and awards. There is a lot of information to be gleaned from these labels if we know what to look for.

To start a wine collection, take the time to research each wine type and the different designations on the label. Once you know what you like, you can explore within that genre of wine until you find the perfect bottles for your collection. Buy at least two bottles of each of your favorites so that you can taste one now and save the other. A wine cooler can be a good investment for collectors planning on aging their wines because it keeps bottles in optimal conditions for aging to perfection. So, get started with the tasting and exploration with your expert knowledge of judging a wine by its label!

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