We all want to feel suave in a wine shop, waltzing in like a seasoned sommelier and gravitating toward an in-the-know bottle with ease. But the fact of the matter is, wine labels can be complicated and decision paralysis is real. While certain bottles of wine are straightforward to understand (down to convenient tasting notes and pairing suggestions), others — particularly those from the European Union — feel akin to decoding a cipher. You can scan the details on a bottle of Vouvray but by the end of it all not even know it’s made from the chenin blanc grape.
While your first line of defense for confusing labels is the knowledgeable staff working there (always ask questions!), if you’re keen to brush up on terminology and topics that might shed light on your most pressing questions, continue ahead for a breakdown of what you can expect to find on a bottle of wine, plus how certain details listed on a label might clue you in on how the wine will taste, such as vintages, alcohol level, and appellation. Plus, our experts weigh in on wine label red flags to be aware of when selecting your next bottle. Continue ahead for a mini guide to maneuvering the wine shop.
How To Read a Wine Label
The beauty of wine lies within its sense of place. A sip of nero d’avola can transport you to the dramatic landscapes of Sicily, or a pour of riesling can be like an adventure to the high peaks of Germany. Wine’s uniqueness means its labels aren’t consistent from one location to the next — far from it. That said, there are a few details you’re likely to find on many of them.
Who made the wine — simple enough.
This is where the grapes are grown.
3. Grape or Appellation
For many Old World wine regions, just the appellation will be listed, while for New World wine regions, it’ll be the grape variety. For example: a wine label might read Loire Valley, which is the region, and Touraine, which is the appellation within the Loire Valley.
The year the grapes were harvested. For some wines there’s no vintage, such as a non-vintage Champagne, which is a blend of several years.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) will always be listed on a wine label.
Some producers choose to give their wine what’s called a ‘fantasy name.’ More on that ahead.
This refers to a designation or ranking pointing to the wine’s origin or quality. This varies greatly between countries and regions. For example: In Spain’s Rioja region, wines might carry a designation of Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, each indicating different aging requirements. Not all wine labels will have a classification.
Some labels will bear logos pertaining to certifications they’ve obtained, such as Biodynamic Certification or Organic Certification.
An individual or business that takes wines from one region to another for distribution and sale.
What Is An Appellation?
“Appellation is a legal term to ensure the wine you're buying is true to where it's from,” Eli’s Table sommelier Thibault Dubreuil says. Naturally, it can indicate a wide variety of things. “Some appellations are very specific and can be classified as superior in quality (such as premier and Grand Cru in France or DOCG in Italy),” DeStio says. “Beyond that, in many appellations there are strict rules as to what grapes can be used, such as sauvignon blanc in Sancerre or riesling in the Mosel.”
When Does A Wine Vintage Matter?
A wine’s vintage (the year the grapes are harvested) often plays a role in the overall profile — but not always. “Vintage is not as critical with multi-vintage fortified or sparkling wines,” Master sommelier Eduardo Dingler says (who is also the VP of Wine Access and a consultant for Kembara). “These producers blend from a number of harvests, producing a house style rather than an expression of vintage.”
A wine’s vintage does matter, however, in a variety of situations. “For example, when buying rosé, you typically want something youthful and fresh, as the producer intended it to be enjoyed,” Dingler says. "If you come across a rosé with many years in the bottle, you may want to proceed with caution.” It also matters when the weather has been extreme because it affects the grape growing season, the harvest, and the outcome of the wine. “2003 was one of the hottest years in France. Most ’03 in Burgundy are pruny, jammy and, overly ripe — avoid,” advises Dubreuil. That said, if you’re not interested in memorizing specific winemaking vintages and their corresponding weather, fret not. “There's an unspoken rule when it comes to vintages — ‘winemaker before vintage’. Most of the time, trust the winemaker to adjust his work based on the weather,” Dubreuil says.
What Can An ABV Level Tell Me?
Of course, a wine bottle’s ABV indicates the alcohol level, but this can also have implications for how the wine will feel once you take a sip. “It can indicate how ‘hot’ a wine might taste — meaning how prevalent the taste of ethanol is,” Sommelier Emmeline Zhao says, who is the managing partner of Silver Apricot + Figure Eight. “A high alcohol wine also tends to have a more luscious and round mouthfeel,” DeStio notes. On the other hand, “if a wine is lower alcohol but has residual sugar it will have a long finish and rich body,” DeStio says. “Since fermentation involves the process of turning sugar into alcohol, lower alcohol wines can occasionally indicate that there will be some leftover sweetness (from sugar that was never converted into alcohol,) but this is not always the case.” If the juice was lower in sugar to begin with it’s possible to have a bone dry wine with low alcohol. All of this to say, ABV can sometimes indicate how luscious or light a wine might be, but it’s not usually used an indicator all on its own.
What About French Wine Labels?
If you tend to gravitate toward the aromas and flavors of French wine but find yourself stuck on how to decipher a label, a few tools go a long way. “Look for the letters AOP or AOC. Except in Champagne, those letters come after the appellation,” Dingler says, explaining that the laws of the appellation are typically very specific and will determine the profile of the final wine. “Once you know the appellations you enjoy or want to try, this makes them easy to spot.” You can also consider the typical flow of a French label. “They follow a format, beginning with the region, moving onto the house, and then vintage,” Porter House assistant general manager Natalia Grande says.
What If My Wine Bottle Doesn’t List The Grape Variety?
While many New World wines will tell you the grape varieties inside the bottle, Old World tends to focus on region. “When you're talking about more classic winemaking methods that tend to be typical of a region, wine education and knowledge is useful to clue you in to how a wine might taste,” Zhao says. “Appellation on a bottle, for example, indicates the most likely grape varieties that are permitted within that designation, and therefore in that bottle.” For example, a red wine from Burgundy will be made from pinot noir, a Chablis will always be chardonnay, and so on. Gradually memorizing your favorite regions and their corresponding varieties will make it easier to navigate the Old World region of the wine shop with ease.
Should I Pay Attention To The Importer?
Though you may pay little attention to the importer information on the back of your wine bottle, it’s actually a useful tool. “You can use them as your personal sommelier in a way when picking out wine,” One White Street wine & beverage director Suzanne DeStio says. “If you learn that you love almost every wine you try from Louis/Dressner or Kermit Lynch, it can be incredibly helpful when you find yourself in a situation with a bunch of wines you don't recognize.”
What Is A 'Fantasy Name'?
This is a made-up name that refers to a specific cuvée from the wine’s producer. “It can be anything at all from the most literal to esoteric,” DeStio says. This name could be derived from any number of influences, from the flavor profile to the vineyard plot. “Some fantasy names describe the ‘personality’ of the wine with creative descriptors or references to a favorite pet or child. There is almost always a great story behind a fantasy name.”
What Does A Cru Status Indicate?
Cru designations can indicate the quality of the wine. “Cru status is very site and region specific, but in many parts of France it indicates the top ranked vineyards or villages in a region,” DeStio says. These wines tend to be age-worthy and powerful, so although they might be more expensive and will ultimately become ‘better’ wine (in some opinions) they may also need time to develop before they reach their peak.”
What Does “Reserve” Mean?
“Depends on the region it's from,” Zhao explains. “It can either mean a lot or absolutely nothing.” If the wine in question is from, say, Spain or Italy, it has to meet a strict set of requirements to bear the Reserva or Riserva designation. “Wines from the U.S. or Australia, as examples, can be labeled ‘Reserve’ without regulation.”
Are There Any Wine Label Red Flags?
Just like the wine inside, every label is unique. But are there any details (or lack thereof) that might be a clue you should avoid buying it? “Wine labels that don't clearly indicate an appellation concern me, because it doesn't tell us anything about the producer and where the grapes come from,” Zhao says.
Secrets To Finding A Quality Bottle
If you’re lucky enough to have a neighborhood wine shop you can easily pop into, Dubreuil says to take advantage of this. “Become a regular and become friendly with the staff, they will hook you up.” You can also take into consideration what the shop’s specialty might be. “If they seem focused on Italy, there is likely great value to be found in that section,” Dingler says. “And don’t be afraid to ask the staff. They know about the rare finds and the selection better than anyone!”
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