How to read a wine label
Now let’s give you some clues on how to select a wine at a wine shop or supermarket.
The label tells you quite a bit about what you need to know about the wine. Unfortunately, it generally won’t tell you about the taste of the wine or if you’ll like it, but it can help you crack the wine code.
These are the two main types of labels: Varietal & Geographic.
- The label will always tell you: origin of the wine, the vintage, wine producer, alcohol content.
- The label will sometimes tell you: the varietal of the wine, a brand name of the wine.
Example 1 – Varietal Wine label
Example 2 – Geographic Wine Label
Elements on a wine label
VARIETAL – an element generally indicated on wines that are made outside of Europe.
The varietal, or type of grape, is sometimes indicated on the label. Many ‘new world’ (i.e. wines made outside of Europe) wines have the varietal marked clearly on their label. This is called Varietal Labeling. The bottle will tell you if you have a Cabernet or a Carmenere in your glass. Of course, there are also wines from Europe which have the varietal on the bottle.
So how do you know what varietal is in your glass when you are drinking a wine from the ‘old world’ (i.e. Europe) and there is no varietal marked? Check out the ‘Region’ information below.
BRAND NAME - sometimes wines are named, for example ‘Opus One’ or ‘Cuvée Claire.’ You will see some winemakers naming their wine to designate specific vineyards, or a specific blend.
APPELLATION – think of this as a specific region where grapes are grown. You can have more specialized wine regions (appellations) within larger growing areas (appellations). You can have this in both the old world and new world. For example, Chassagne-Montrachet appellation within the larger appellation of Burgundy or Stags Leap District within the larger appellation of Napa valley
ELEMENTS ON BOTH A VARIETAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL WINE LABEL
The producer of the wine, also called the winemaker, vintner, or vigneron, makes many choices during winemaking which impact the finished wine. For instance, a winemaker uses an oak barrel as a sort of spice rack. The use of the barrel can change a relatively mild grape like Chardonnay into a rich, buttery, wine. We’ll talk about winemaking in a future lesson.
Alcohol content in wine can give you a clue to the wine’s style. Wines that are under 13% are generally lighter in style. This means the wine will be more citrusy, more refreshing and great for an aperitif or for lighter foods like sushi. Over 13% the wine will be more flavorful or intense, and will be a bit heavier.
On your bottle of Riesling, you’ll see a year – 2011 – this is the year that the grapes for this wine were harvested and not the year the wine was put into the bottle. For instance, the winemaker can choose to harvest the grapes in 2012 but age the wine in wood for 2 years and bottle it in 2014.
Vintage can give you a clue on the wine style. Younger wines (less than 3 or 4 years away from the vintage) are fresher and more fruit forward. Older wines, from 3 years of age or older, will have a less fruity taste.
That Riesling in your glass is from 2011, a good year in Alsace. After a rocky start and wet summer, producers were happily blessed with an Indian summer and that in turn made a fruit forward wine with nice acidity.
A wine label will always have an indication on where the grapes were grown or sourced to make the wine. For example, in the Varietal example, this wine is from Napa Valley. This differs a bit from Varietal and Geographical labels. On a Geographical label – you will not likely have a varietal, but you will always have a region. The region will give you an idea on what varietals are used in this area.
This gets complicated, especially in French wine regions. For example, on the Geographic label you have the region ‘Chassagne-Montrachet.’ To know what grape varietal is in the bottle, you have to know that Chassagne-Montrachet is in the Burgundy region of France, and in Burgundy, they use Chardonnay as the primary grape varietal. Its a lot to know, but we will un-complicate things in further lessons.