Wine 201 – How to read a Wine Label

I’ve been giving this post a lot of thought, as it can be rather tricky.

I know, I know… I can hear you saying out loud, “What? How can reading wine labels be tricky? “

Well, it’s only tricky if you do not know what you are looking for. But you can learn a fair amount of a wine just by learning how to read a label. For example, you can learn how to pick up a higher quality wine, just by looking for a few specific words.

The problem, as far as I’ve been able to discern, is that different countries…heck, even different areas of a single country….have different rules, guidelines and laws that determine what is or is not in a bottle of wine. To complicate matters, sometimes these rules, guidelines and laws are made by governments, other times they are made by a consortium of vineyards. One can approach reading a German Wine bottle differently than one reads a French wine bottle. In fact, you can get dozens of different hits on Google when you type in “How to read a German Wine Label” versus “How to read a French Wine Label“.

I don’t think it’s necessary to get that specific (and nor do I want to write separate posts on each countries wine), so I’ve devised a simple, straightforward way to look at wine labels that most of us already are familiar.

There’s a list of simple questions that journalists strive to answer in any article. We can apply the same questions to Wine Labels. Those questions?

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?

A couple of notes here…I’ve excluded the “Why?” question because the only person who can honestly tell you why a wine is made is the owner of the vineyard. Some folks do put mission statements that may give you an insight as to why they made the wine, but our goal here is to use clues to find good wine. Most wine blurbs will upsell the wine, regardless of wine quality.

So let’s deal with each question one at a time. First, let’s touch upon the questions which are universal:

Who made the wine? The company or firm that made the wine or, in some cases, the wine’s trademark name. Pretty straightforward. Sometimes it’s the name of the family or company that makes the wine, sometimes it’s the name of the winery. The answer to this question is pretty straightforward.

However, it should be noted that who made the wine weren’t the same people who grew the grapes used in the wine. The family/company most likely purchased the grapes from an outsourced vineyard. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have “Estate Wineries”, who are wineries who happen to grow their own grapes. So if you see “Estate Wineries” or even “Estate Bottled”, you know that the winery/company had more input on how the grapes were grow.

When were the wine grapes harvested? This would be the vintage of the wine, the year in which the grapes were harvested for the wine. Thus a 2003 riesling means that the grapes for the riesling were harvested in 2003.

The vintage does not necessarily mean when the wine was made, but many countries have laws stating that a certain percentage of a wine must have been fermented in the same year the grapes were harvested. In the US, if a bottle has a vintage of 2003, you can be assured that 95% of the wine had been fermented in the same year the grapes were harvested. In Australia and most of the European Union countries, the minimum to qualify for vintage dating is only 85%, but some local appellations require a higher percentage. Bordeaux, for example, requires 95%. Other wine-producing countries, including Chile and South Africa, require that only 75%, but that doesn’t mean all wines go that low.
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The next two questions are related, and are a little more complex than the “Who?” and “When?” questions. There are two variables to take into consideration in regard to each question

What kind of wine is it? Varietals: A wine varietal is the type of wine you are drinking. Cabernet Sauvignon , Pinot Noir, Gamay Beaujolais, Meritage, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Grigio are just but a sampling of the different varietals. These wines have specifc “recipes” that require a specific type of grape in order to make said varietal. Riesling grapes make Rieslings, viognier grapes make Viognier, etc, etc.

Buuuuut…sometimes there are other qualifiers on these varietals. For example, not only are there rieslings, but there are Gray Rieslings, Emerald Rieslings, and Sylvaner Rieslings. Sometimes these mean nothing, but often these are different varietals or even blended wines that are trying to improve sales by categorizing themselves with similar, more popular wines. If there is a qualifier on the varietal, read up on it before purchasing.

Aside from Varietals, you also have Generic wines – are wines based off of Appellation wines, but grown outside of the Appellation area….a California Burgandy, or an Australian Chianti are good examples. Although prevalent 30 or so years ago, you are seeing less and less of these wines around. But you should be aware of them.

You also have proprietary wines, which are often blends of varietals. For example, I had a wine recently that was a detailed blend of the following grapes: 7.1% Syrah, 11.78% Ruby Cabernet, 12.4% Pinotage, 45.33% Cinsault, 9.39% Grenache and 13.99% Cabernet Sauvignon. Since a wine can’t be called a varital after the amount of grapes in a wine fall beneath a certain percentage, a winery can (and does) make up it’s own proprietary name. If a name sounds unfamiliar, research it before buying it.

Appellations: Appellations typically do not disclose what kind of grapes are used in the wine. They’d rather be known for where the grapes are grown as opposed to what kind of grapes they’re made from. That’s not to say there aren’t standards…there are. Local wine boards dictate what kinds of grapes are used for the appellations. Italian Chianti’s are made with sangiovese grapes, and French Chablis are made from chardonnay grapes. The only way to become familiar with which grapes make up which Appellations is to research the appellation you are interested in.

Where is the wine from?Varietals: What I’m about to say here will save your hiney when picking out unfamiliar wines. Generally speaking: the more specific the wine label is in telling you where the grapes come from, the better chance you have of picking up a good wine.

For example, if one wine label says Washington Chardonnay, that could mean anything from a vineyard in the Columbia Valley or a winery right next to the Snohomish Slough. An entire state
is a huge target to try to hit with a single dart. Who knows if you’re going to get lucky. Besides, if a winery is only wants to be vague on where the grapes come from, do you really want to put your trust in them?

Granted, nowadays its unlikely that you’ll see wines with that large of an area to choose from. Most wineries know that it’s profitable to put locations designated by an American Viticultural Areas. These AVA’s are government defined locations that allow you to give a better estimation on where the grapes were grown. Often there’ll be macro AVA’s, and then micro AVA’s within the Macro.

As an example, the Columbia Valley is an AVA that’s pretty large – 185 miles wide and 200 miles long. But within that there are three micro AVA’s: Walla Walla Valley, the Yakima Valley,and the Red Mountain AVA’s. Reading Columbia Valley on a label would give you a general idea on where the wine has grown, but reading Yakima Valley on a label would give a more specific location. Some wineries may even tell you the specific vineyard that the grapes had been grown.

(For a list of American AVA’s, click here)

This in of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good wine, but it does show the level of detail certain wineries will go, to ensure that it’s history is known. It also demonstrates the level of commitment that some wineries have to their own reputation. This is a good thing to look for in wines.

However, in practice, other have noted that many wineries desire the larger areas from which to choose their grapes. This gives them options that allow them to create a consistent wine, rather than a wine dependent only one vineyard. Think of it this way: You found a grape that delivered very specific and measurable characteristics that produced a very great wine. Would you want to be able to locate a grape that replicated those characteristics from several vineyards year after year, or would you like to restrict yourself to just the one vineyard? This is one aspect of the “brand vs. terroir” debate that Derrick alludes to in the comments.

So remember…the better you are able to pinpoint the location of where the grapes have been grown, the better chance you have of getting a quality wine. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule, as many wineries desire multiple vinyards to choose their grapes from, but it is a good rule of thumb to follow if you are new to wines.

Think of the following scale – State, region, valley, county, city, district, vineyard. Themore of these you can determine on a bottle’s appellation, the better chance you have of getting a good wine.

Appellations: The same rules of specification apply, but instead of the cities and counties being important, often (but not always) the House/Family Winery names are more important to note.

Also, many French and Italian appellations often (but not always) have governing authorities that determine just what makes up a Burgandy or a Chianti. In France the Appellation d’Origine Controlee is the French system of designating and controlling both the geography and the quality of wines (as well as liquors and some food products, such as cheeses). It is also known simply as Appellation Controlee and often abbreviated as AOC or AC.

In Italy, various consortiums regulate the appellations, but not stringently. For example, although there are many Chiantis from Tuscany, the Chianti consortium generally let the wineries sell these wines, even if they don’t met the standard definition of what makes a “Chianti”. However, they do designate what makes a Chianti Classico. So if you want to drink an ‘authentic’ chianti, look for the ‘classico’ designation. This applies to a handful of exported , well known Italian wines.

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The last question “How” actually ends up being two questions
How were the grapes picked? and/or How was the wine defined?

How were the grapes picked? This is a broad category, to be sure, but I felt it needed to be covered. German wines have terms for when the grapes were picked and how ripe they were. Since this is a taste issue, I’ll refrain from telling you which is the better designation but I will say that these four definitions are part of a larger defintion of German wine which I’ll touch upon further below:

  • Kabinett – Usually light wines made of fully ripe grapes. Intended to be a light quaffing wine or to go with light food. Generally light in alcohol and calories. Can be dry, medium-dry or sweet.
  • Spätlese (late Harvest) – Wines of superior quality made from grapes harvested after the normal harvest. These wines are more intense in flavor and concentration than quality wines and Kabinetts. The later harvest lets the grapes dry and ripen on sunny autumn days, which increases the intensity of the fruit and the flavors. Can be dry, medium-dry or sweeter style.
  • Auslese (select Picking) – Harvest of selected, very ripe bunches. Noble wines, intense in bouquet and taste. Often resembling dessert wines and sweet, but they can be dry, medium-dry or sweet.
  • Beerenauslese (BA) – Harvest of individually selected, overripe berries. Remarkably rich, sweet dessert wines.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) – Harvest of individually selected berries that are overripe and dried up on the vine almost to raisins. Rich, sweet, luscious, honey-like wines.

You’ll also see “Eiswein”, which literally means ‘ice-wine’ indicating that the grapes were picked when frozen.

How was the wine defined? The Wine can be defined in many ways…below are several terms that should help out. Some are regulated by their specific authorities, others are traditional terms that have no standards to be based upon.

German wines Germany loves labeling their wines. You find more information on German Labels than you find on other countries labels. The Germans even tell you how dry the wine may or may not be:

  • Trocken – A dry wine without perceptible residual sweetness.
  • Halbtrocken – A semi-dry wine with a barely perceptible sweetness.

German wines also can have determinations for quality (much like the French):

  • Deutscher Tafelwein – German Tablewine. Lower in quality. Made from normally ripe and slightly under ripe grapes.
  • Landwein – Country wine….consider this a superior tablewine.
  • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) – Quality Wine of a Specified Appellation, these wines have to follow appellation laws in order to be designated as an appellation.
  • Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) – Quality Wine with Attributes , only these wines can be given the “Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA, and TBA”. If you see these designations on your German wines, you are getting a perceived higher quality wine.

French Wines The French like to list the quality of the wines on their bottles as well. Sometime you will also see these terms on non-French bottles.

  • Vin de Table – This is your basic French “table wine” The quality can vary from weak to very good , and price is often not an indication of the quality.
  • Vin de Pays D’oc – Wine of the country. A high class table wine, from a particular region of France and with a specific vintage. Also known as the generic term of “Vin de pays.”
  • Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure (VDQS) – “Superior quality wine”, has strict controls on production and variety of grapes used. The label has a VDQS icon in the lower-left corner, and specifies the type of grape it’s made from.
  • Appellation d’origine contrôlée (aka “Appellation contrôlée” or AOC) – A designation we mentioned above that means the wine has met certain preset standards that allow it to be designated a specific Appellation.
  • Cru Classe – A high-quality classification used by only a few appellations. A “cru” is a vineyard or growth of distinction. Grand Cru is the best growth, Premier Cru is very good and Cru Bourgeois is, as the name suggests, a wine without distinction.

Other terms to be aware of:

“Estate bottled” for example means that the wine was made with the grapes on site…they didn’t use outsourced vinyards for the wine.

“Produced and bottled by” is soemtimes one of the better phrases to see in fine print on a label. It means that the winery itself actually crushed the grapes, fermented the juice and put the wine into bottles. The only thing better in this regard is “grown, produced and bottled by,” which is basically the same as estate bottled. Both of these phrases have been abused by some wineries however, so take them with a grain of salt. Other phrases, such as “vinted and bottled by” and “cellared and bottled by” can mean the winery bought the wine from another vintner, maybe blended it and aged it a bit — maybe not — then bottled it.

“Reserve” wines however, have no legal definitions aside from meaning the the winery had decided to hold a percentage of wine back for loftier, higher quality goals. However, less scrupulous wineries began stating that all wine had been termed “reserve” thus dilluting the impact of the term. Unless the winery you choose has higher standards, and have clearly defined what ‘reserve’ means, view the term with skepticism.

As you can see, there are many hints on a bottle of wine that allow you a better chance of picking a good wine. But these are simply starting points. The best way to find great wines is to drink wines, note the wineries, note the varietals, and develop your sense memory. That way you have your own experience to draw from. If you find that your pleased by one specific type of wine, or if you find a winery that consistently produces above average bottles, this is your best way of getting the better wines.

That’s a lot of terms to digest. Time to test some of them out!


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