When we choose a bottle of wine, there are many factors that influence our decision. Personal preferences certainly play a role, but when we don’t know a lot about a bottle, the label can give us a few clues about what’s inside. Familiarity with a few key terms, as well as an understanding of how labels differ from country to country, can help translate what’s on the label to what’s inside the bottle.
Is the Wine Class Conscious or Brand Conscious?
Generally speaking, Old World (e.g. European) labels will focus more on the wine’s classification — also known as the wine’s appellation credentials — rather than the wine’s producer or the type of grape used. These credentials are based on well-established, and often very specific, classification systems that, among other things, determine how many grapes a producer can grow, where they can grow them, what type of production methods can be used, and even the alcohol level.
For example, a bottle of white wine from Chablis will likely have “Appellation Contrôlée” (AC or AOC) on the label, indicating the wine’s level of quality, but no indication that the wine is made from Chardonnay grapes and is generally unoaked. Those details are presumed, based on the AOC classification. These criteria will vary depending on the country and region, as well as the type of wine being produced. Though at times cumbersome, the classification system ensures a consistent level of quality that consumers can rely on.
Outside of Europe, classification systems are much less comprehensive and in some countries, still under development. Instead, New World (e.g. non-European) labels focus more on the producer and grape varietals used. They will also tend to offer more specific information, to help the consumer get a sense of the style and taste of the wine.
The label on a bottle of Chardonnay from South Africa’s Stellenbosch region will certainly list the grape and possibly even the method of production, such as barrel fermented, indicating the wine will have some oak characteristics. Similarly, it’s more common for New World labels to state whether or not the wine is a blend and even to include tasting notes on the back of the bottle.
Wine Label Vocabulary
Once you have a lay of the label land, speaking a bit of the language will go a long way. Below are several terms usually found on all wine labels, regardless of origin.
Producer or Name
The producer is the winemaker and this information should be right on the front of the label, often at the top. If a larger producer has multiple brands, the label might only list the wine’s brand name front and center, such the Barefoot brand by E. & J. Gallo. The producer’s name and location are in those cases, usually located on the back label.
The region will indicate from where the grapes were sourced to make the wine. This is important because where the grapes are grown will have an impact on the style, quality, and flavor characteristics of the grapes (see Old World vs New World Wine – What’s the Big Deal? for more on how geography impacts grapes).
Broadly speaking, higher quality wines will have very specific geographical indicators (such as Los Carneros or Maipo Valley), sometimes even listing a specific vineyard site (Blue Slide Ridge or Lolita Ranch), while lower quality, bulk-produced wines will list very general regions (such as California or Chile).
Grape Variety or Appellation
Finding a familiar grape varietal is an easy way to start your label navigation but as noted above, many Old World labels list the appellation instead of the specific grape. Looking up the listed appellation will give you a sense of what grapes are grown in that region and the standards of production. New World wines will be more explicit about what’s inside the bottle, often listing the varietals used to make the wine front and center.
Be aware that the main varietal listed on the label doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine is only made from that grape. In the U.S., producers are only required to list the varietal that comprises up to 75% or 85% of the wine, with the exact percentage varying by state.
The year listed on the label is the year the grapes were harvested. The vast majority of wines should be consumed while young and fresh, so the vintage year is a good indication of whether a wine is past its prime. For the few prestigious wines that are age-worthy, the vintage will serve as a guide about the price and quality of the wine.
Not only does the vintage indicate how long the wine has been aged but it also helps the consumer figure out whether the wine was produced in a good weather year, which will affect how long the wine will last. Wines without a year listed, also called non-vintage wines, are produced using grapes from multiple harvest years and indicate lower value, bulk produced wines. Champagnes, which rely on multiple harvest years to ensure consistency and high quality of the product, are an exception.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
Besides noting the level of alcohol, the ABV can provide some clues about the wine’s style. Grapes grown in hot climates ripen longer and will have more sugar to convert to alcohol during the fermentation process, resulting in a higher ABV and big, fruit forward flavors.
An Australian Shiraz, for example, will likely have a higher ABV and more intense fruit characteristics than the same grape grown in France. If you can’t find this information on the front, look on the back label.
Other fairly common labeling terms that give more specificity about the wine include:
This means the wine underwent fermentation in oak barrels (sometimes called barriques), which imparts characteristics such as toast, vanilla, cedar, or smoke. Barrel fermented wines will also have more contact with the dead yeast cells, called lees, adding a creamy or yeasty character. This technique usually leads to a rounder mouth feel and subtler flavor characteristics.
These are wines that are aged in oak after the fermentation process is complete. Oak ageing at this stage will result in more pronounced oak characteristics (toast, vanilla, smoke, cedar).
This term usually refers to a specific wine blend, either of different grape varieties, different vintage years, or even wine from different barrels or vats from the same vineyard. Often a cuvée will be the producer’s signature blend and is commonly used for sparkling wines.
The entire winemaking process, from growing the grapes to bottling, is done on the producer’s estate.
Old Vines/Vieilles Vignes
This indicates that the wine was made from grapes harvested from vines that are so old they produce less fruit, but of a higher quality. There is no definition about how old the vines need to be though generally speaking, if the vine is more than 20-30 years old and has started producing smaller yields, it can be considered “old vine.”
Only Spain and Italy have specific ageing requirements for a wine to be labeled reserve. In other countries, most producers use the term to indicate a wine that has been made from a particularly good vintage and perhaps aged longer. Since there are no regulations on the use of the term, labeling a bottle “reserve” could also be a way of gussying up an average wine.
Unfiltered or Unrefined
Before bottling, most wines are treated to remove any particles that might cause haziness. Some producers choose to skip this step, believing that the clarification process could detract from the character of the wine. These wines are more likely to form deposits at the bottom of the bottle and are less likely to be clear in the glass.
While being familiar with these terms will give you a good foundation for interpreting a wine label, let’s not forget the important factor of shelf appeal. All of us at one point or another have chosen a bottle simply because we liked how the label looked, and who’s to say definitively that a label’s appearance shouldn’t be a factor?
If it looks like the producer gave some sincere thought and attention to the label’s design, this could be a sign that the producer gave the same amount of attention to the winemaking process. Gimmicky or poorly designed labels could signal that the wine is bulk-produced or simply, that less attention was paid to the details of the wine’s production. While these are not hard and fast rules, how the wine is presented on the label sends a message about the product inside.
As always, the best way to find out for yourself is to taste and most importantly, enjoy!