Wine Labels 101, Forget About It
All you need to know about wine labels is actually more about what you should forget. There are only four things on a wine label that will give you any pertinent information. We’ll get to those in a minute, but for now let’s go over what you should forget. Forget the pictures of cute animals, cartoon animals or animals of any kind. Forget pictures of trees, flowers or castles (unless it is an actual picture of the chateau like Chateau Montelena, Villa Antinori or Chateau Lafite). Those are three of my favorite wine labels: classic, accurate and when you arrive there you will know it because you will recognize the property from the label. Do not waste your time reading any back label descriptions of the wine. People who would say anything to sell you a bottle of wine wrote those descriptions. Forget names of people, places, trees, canyons, rivers or towns. Unless they denote an American Viticultural Area (A.V.A) like Russian River or a designated European growing region like Champagne.
We will now note the four pieces of useful information on a wine label.
- Vintage (harvest date) does matter so find a vintage chart and use it. Enobytes.com has a good one and it’s free.
- Location. The exact geographical location of where the grapes that went into a specific bottle of wine were grown can be an indicator of quality. Just because the address of a specific winery is listed as Napa, California does not mean, the grapes in the bottle came from Napa. All wines sold in the USA must list on the label the origin of the grape. The variety of grapes in Old World wines are usually identified by the region where they originated. For example, Chianti from Italy is made from the Sangiovese grape.
- Varietal. The name of the grape can tell you a lot about the wine. New world producers (North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) label wines by the grape name. For example, US Federal Law requires a wine must have 75 percent of a specific grape for it to carry that name. Some states have stricter regulations like Oregon, which requires a wine be 90 percent of a specific grape to be labeled that grapes name. Old World producers (Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Portugal) label their wines by region and require a lot more knowledge to decipher what is in the bottle.
- Alcohol Content. There are several reasons to pay attention to alcohol levels listed on all wine labels. Most table, dessert or sparkling wines are between 8 percent and 16 percent alcohol. US law requires labels to reflect the specific amount; it may, however, be hard to find. Some producers use fonts so small they are hard to see with the human eye. Higher alcohol translates to higher calories, but also can mean fuller flavor. The amount of sugar in the grape, when harvested dictates how high the alcohol level will be after fermentation. Low alcohol levels for white wines usually indicate it is a sweet wine, and low alcohol red wines indicate a lighter style within the varietal.
This article barely scrapes the surface of the vast amount of knowledge needed to understand wine labels. There are plenty of books, newspapers, magazines and websites to turn to for further advice on this subject, and nothing beats buying a bottle and developing your own database of knowledge. Although I have more than 40 years of experience, I’m still not an expert. But you can take my advice on knowing what you should forget.