How To Read a Wine Label

A serious point of  wine intimidation often begins with the label. So many wines, so many labels, so many foreign elements, it’s hard to feel smart when you’re just trying to figure out if that $10 bottle is worth buying or should I just stick with Yellow Tail because there’s so much of it on the shelves that it must be good. Once you get over label intimidation you will have a foundation with which to overcome all other aspects of wine intimidation.

Every country has it’s own rules about what is required to be printed on a wine label. Here in the United States we force all wines imported from other countries to comply with our label requirements as well. There is a lot of information on any wine label. With all the elaborate artwork, fancy fonts, and how the information is presented it’s almost impossible not to be a little trepidatious at first.  Some of the information is useful and some of it just takes up space and is there to impress you. Eventually I will take each major wine producing country and give a full examination of its labeling conventions but for now here are some basics. The illustration below and the explanation come directly from the California Wine Institute’s website. It is an example that uses a simple label design in order to highlight the major points of interest on a tour of any label. These points of interest are determined, required, and enforced by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

1. The producer (who makes the wine) or brand name. This is not always the same thing as where the grapes were grown. Vineyards do not have to be wineries, though many do have them, and wineries do not necessarily grow their own grapes.
2. Vintage, or year the grapes were grown. Every country has its own rules for how much of the grape in the bottle has to be from the particular year stated. California requires that 95% of the juice the bottle has to come from the stated vintage year. Yes, wines are often blended with the juice of more than one vintage.
3. The type of wine in the bottle. It may be a varietal (single grape type) as represented in this example, or a blend such as a meritage, claret, or bordeaux. California requires that at least 75% of the wine in the bottle is actually of that varietal. Other wine juice can be added to increase the character and depth and still be called by that varietal and not a blend. Every viticultural area around the world has its own rules about that too.
4. Appellation, place of origin or geographical growing area. If this label were to say “California” as the growing area 100% of the grapes would have been required to come from the state of California but they could have been sourced from anywhere in the state. Narrowing down the place of origin to to a county level such as “Sonoma” or “Napa” 75% of the grapes would have to have been grown within that county. The most narrow declaration of the place of origin on a U.S. wine is called an American Viticultural Area or AVA, and 85% of the grapes for that wine must have come from that AVA. Every other viticultural area in the world has its own set of rules on this also. By now you can easily see where all the confusion comes from.
5. This is the vineyard where the grapes are grown. If they were in fact also the producers the bottle might say something like “Estate Bottled”.
6. Alcohol by volume. Some places require it and some do not. It does appear on most wine labels. It is one of the indicators of the body of a wine, sometimes its sweetness, and it’s capacity to age (sometimes). In the U.S. we categorize wines by their alcohol content (this also determines the tax paid on wine – you knew there had to be a reason!).
  • Table wine: 8% – 14%
  • Sparkling wine: 8% – 12%
  • Fortified wine: 17% – 22% (Ports, Madeiras, Sherries)
     
7. Sulfite statement. Sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of the winemaking process. Sometimes it is added to wine as a preservative. This is more common in New World wines than European wines. Federal law in the U.S. requires that the consumer be informed of sulfites contained in wine. Some people feel they have an allergic reaction to the sulfites in wine. See also the illustration of the back of a U. S. wine label with the required warnings.
 In a future post we’ll look at French, Italian, and German labels.
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About WiningWays

Wine writing, appreciation, and education, including tasting, evaluation, and food pairings a specialty. Member, Society of Wine Educators.
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