Deciphering Wine Labels
by Mark R. Vogel

        Unless you’re highly knowledgeable, choosing a wine in a wine shop can sometimes be a daunting task.  This is particularly true of the “megamart” wine shops where the selections are endless and the competent help is few and far between.  If you wish to rely on more than price and potluck to guide you, you’ll need to do some homework, and that starts with knowing how to decipher a wine label.  Some of the information on the label is neutral, some is totally useless, (like the government warning), and some is quite valuable, if you know what it means.  
        All wines have a primary label on the front but others also have a secondary, smaller label underneath the main one.  This supplemental label usually contains less pertinent information.  Sometimes this ancillary info is on the back label.  Below is a replica of the front labels from the 1994 Chateau Leoville Barton, (minus the graphics and pictures).  Leoville Barton is a highly regarded Bordeaux from France.  It almost doesn’t matter which wine bottle we use since most of the information is the same from bottle to bottle.  This is partially due to US laws dictating label contents for wines sold in the US, and partially due to routine practices amongst wine makers.  Generally, you can expect the following data to be found on wines sold in America:

  

  • The brand name
  • Name of the producer, bottler, importer, and/or shipper
  • The vintage
  • The appellation or region where the grapes were grown and/or the quality of the wine
  • The type of wine
  • The country of origin
  • The alcohol content
  • The bottle volume
  • The varietal designation
  • The sulfite and government warnings

  

 

        The brand name of the wine, like any other product, is used to identify the wine.  However, sometimes the brand name, producer, and bottler are all one in the same.  In the above example “Chateau Leoville Barton” is the brand.  “S.A. Chateaux Lanoga Et Leoville-Barton A Saint-Julien-Beycheville Gironde” is the producer and the bottler since “Mis En Bouteille Au Chateau” tells you it was bottled at the winery.  The importer, US Wine Imports, must also be the shipper since no separate information about the shipper is included.  In essence, the producers, bottlers, importers and shippers may all be different people.  
        
What’s most important here is awareness of who the good producers are.  A vineyard may be divided up by many different growers.  Some may make their own wine and some may sell their grapes to various producers.  Either way, multiple producers can be making wine from one vineyard, and producers vary in their wine making skill.  Just because the wine hails from a superlative vineyard does not guarantee success in the glass.  Erudition and practical experience will guide you toward the reputable producers.
        
The vintage is simply the year the grapes were grown.  Obviously knowing the best vintages for the particular wine in question is most helpful.  Some wines, like non-vintage Champagnes, do not sport a vintage on the bottle.  This is because they are an amalgamation of grapes from multiple years.
        
The appellation is a designated growing area.  This is a vital piece of information, particularly for European wines.  Appellations are more than just specific geographical regions; they also include a number of rules and regulations that must be employed in the growing of the grapes and production of the wine.  They ensure a minimal standard of quality.  Appellations are often hierarchically constructed by increasing stringency of their mandates and subsequently, quality level.  In Italy the highest level is DOCG, (Denominaziome di Origine Controllata e Garantita), followed by DOC, (Denominaziome di Origine Controllata), and then IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica), also referred to as vino da tavola.  In France from highest to lowest is AOC (Appellation Controlee), VDQS (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure), Vin de Pays, and Vin de Table.   In the above example, “Appellation Saint Julien Controlee” tells you that Saint Julien is an AOC status region.   
        
America does not have an appellation system per se.  The US has established American Viticultural Areas or AVAs, such as Sonoma for example, but these are not based on quality standards as in the European models, but rather geographical features.  
        
Moreover, depending on the wine, there may be additional indicators of quality on the label beside the appellation.  For example, Bordeaux created a quality-based ranking system of their chateaux back in 1855.  Only 61 Bordeaux chateaux made it into the classification system.  Although not etched in stone, you can be fairly sure of high quality from these “classified growths.”  The words “Cru Classe En 1855” on the above label tell you that Chateau Leoville Barton is a classified growth.  
        
The label will also note the wine type or varietal, (varietal refers to the kind of grape).  Remember that most European wines are named for the region they hail from, not the name of the grape.  (There are exceptions of course, such as the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France, famed for its varietal wines).  The label of Chateau Leoville Barton asserts “Red Bordeaux Wine.”  This is the type of wine.  Of course you must be cognizant of Bordeaux in general and Leoville Barton in particular to know which specific grapes (varietals), comprise the wine.  (Leoville Barton happens to be 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and 8% Cabernet Franc).  Conversely, American wines are denoted by the variety of the grape.  In America, 75% of a wine must be made from a singular grape to don that grape’s name on the label.  Thus, an American Chardonnay is at least 75% actual Chardonnay.
        
Country of origin, alcohol percentage, and the volume of the bottle are self-explanatory.  The government mandated sulfite warning is designed to protect individuals with allergies to sulfites.  Sulfur Dioxide is used to inhibit insects, diseases, bacteria, mold, and spoilage.  Finally, the government requires that every bottle state that pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol and that alcohol can impair your ability to operate machinery and possibly cause health problems.  Quite frankly, if you’re that obtuse or indifferent to drinking during your pregnancy or driving drunk, that label is not going to stop you.  Usually the government warnings are placed on the back label.  
        
I suspect this article has been a lot to swallow.  At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that something as simple as a wine label can actually be rather involved.  But as I stated, to fully understand what the label is telling you, you’ll have to do some homework.  The good news is that an integral part of the studying is tasting.  I’m sure you’ll be pulling some all-nighters. 

 

 

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