How to Read a Wine Label

How to Read a Wine Label

When you walk into a liquor store and start strolling down the wine aisle, what do you look for?  Do you shop for your old reliable favorites, or do you try new brands and types of wines that you’ve never had before?  The beautiful, colorful labels which grace so many wine bottles are designed to catch our attention and make wine brands stand out on the shelves among many other similar looking bottles.  But do you know how to read one properly to ascertain as much information as possible about the wine inside the bottle?

Wine labels are actually highly regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the TTB) in conjunction with the U.S. Treasury Department.  Certain information is required to be included on all wine labels.  Here is a guide to the required information and how to interpret it when you are shopping for a new wine to try.

Brand Name

This is one of the most basic types of information on any wine label.  Wine brands are prominently displayed in most cases.  In some cases, you may only find the name of the bottler.  In those situations, the bottler is also the brand.  This information is very important.  The more you learn about wines and the more wines you taste, the more you will come to identify wineries that you enjoy.  There are several key phrases to become familiar with here:

  • “Grown, produced, and bottled by.”  This phrase indicates that you are looking at a complete estate wine.  The producer grew the grapes, produced the wine, and bottled it, completing every step of the process in house.

  • “Produced and bottled by.” This implies that the winery received their grapes from another vineyard, but did the rest.  Sometimes this will read “Made and bottled by.”

  • “Cellared and bottled by.”  This implies that the wine was manufactured elsewhere, and that the name on the label is the bottler only.

  • “Bottled by.”  This indicates that the brand name is only the bottler, while somebody else was responsible for growing the grapes and producing the wine.

Type of Wine

The type of wine must also appear on the bottle label.  This may take a couple of different forms.  Some wines are reoffered to by the grape varietal used.  Chardonnay is one example.  Other types of wine are named after the region they were produced in (Chianti or Champagne for instance).  Still others may be generically labeled as “Red Table Wine” or “White Cooking Wine,” or so on.  These generically labeled wines are something of a tossup, and usually are not of the highest quality.

If a wine is labeled with a grape varietal, it must be comprised of at least 75% that varietal.  The remaining 25% may come from other types of grapes.  Note that some types of wines are actually blends.  “Meritage” is a Bordeaux blend which may contain two or more types of wine from that region.  This may seem overwhelming if you are new to wines, but you will learn in time.

Origin Information

Appellation of Origin is a section of the label which tells you where the wine comes from.  For a state or county to be listed in this section, at least 75% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have come directly from that state or county.  In California, the regulation is even stricter.  Wines labeled as CA wines must be made 100% from California grapes.  Another special identifier is the “AVA” label, which stands for “American viticultural area.”  If an AVA region is listed, such as Napa Valley, 85% of the grapes used in the wine must come from that region.  Specificity is key here when it comes to finding quality.

Vintage

Not all wines list a vintage.  The “vintage” is the year that the grapes were harvested to produce the wine.  Fifteen percent of the grapes may come from a year outside the vintage without disqualifying the wine from the vintage year.  The vintage tells you how long the wine has been aging.  The effect of aging on a particular wine may depend on a wide variety of factors relating to the grapes used, the storage conditions of the wine, and the climate.  As a result, by itself, the year does not tell you much.  Once you become familiar with different types of wine, however, the year may contribute to your decision to purchase or pass over a particular bottle.

Alcohol Content

This is another mandatory piece of information which indicates what percentage of the wine is alcohol by content.  There are two main brackets for alcohol content:

  • 14% or below.  A buffer of +/1 1.5% is permitted for wines which contain 14% alcohol or less.  Note however that the buffer may not be used to reclassify the wine into the above-14% category.

  • Above 14%.  A tolerance of +/- 1% is permitted in this bracket.  Once again, the tolerance may not be used to push the wine into the other class.

A wine which is denoted as a generic “table wine” may not include a specific alcohol percentage on the label.  For a wine to have this label, it must by in the 14% or less category.

Volume

The wine bottle must state how much fluid is inside.

Sulfites

allende-label

Wines which contain sulfites are required to note this one their label.  A lot of people do not even know what this phrase “contains sulfites” actually means.  Sulfites refer to sulfur dioxide (SO2) compounds.  These compounds are preservatives which are used frequently in winemaking because they keep wine fresh and prevent contamination from bacteria.

There are some myths about sulfites.  Many wine drinkers believe they cause headaches, or that they are unnatural additives—whereas they are actually natural yeast by-products created during fermentation, and there is no conclusive medical evidence regarding sulfites causing headaches.  Even wine without sulfites added typically contains naturally occurring sulfites.  Sulfites must be kept within very strict regulatory parameters, so the amount of sulfites you are consuming is very low.  Sulfites are generally only a concern to people who are allergic to them or have an intolerance resulting from a lack of enzymes for properly digesting SO2.

Health Warning

The government requires that a health warning be present on every alcohol bottle.  This is the standard health warning which you will see on other alcohol bottles warning pregnant women, drivers, and machinery operators to avoid drinking alcohol.

Other Information

There are several types of optional information beyond the vintage which may be included on a wine label.  Some wine labels include information on the tasting notes and other qualities of a wine—its sweetness or dryness, as well as its color.  You also may find information about vineyards.  If a specific vineyard is listed on a wine label, that means that 95% of the grapes used in the wine were specifically from that vineyard.  This tends to denote high quality, since a vineyard is unlikely to be listed unless it has a prominent reputation.  You may also see a related term, “Estate Bottled.” This indicates that 100% of the grapes used came from the winery in question.  The vineyard and winery are in this case located in the same viticultural zone.

Now you should have a much better idea what you are looking at when you read the information on a wine label.  You also now can shop for wine with a more useful set of criteria than the bright colors and beautiful designs on the label.  Read the information on the labels and start learning about vineyards, grape varietals, wine regions, and vintages, and you will become better at selecting wines from the liquor store which you will enjoy.  Keep up with wine blogs and publications and your knowledge will grow!

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