If you enjoy wine and ever order bottles at restaurants or buy them for gifting or to add to your own collection, you need to know how to read a wine label. While the myriad words and abbreviations printed on a wine label may seem confusing at first, reading a wine label is quite easy once you know to watch out for a few key pieces of information. The labelling process can vary from country to country – for example, some wines are labelled by grape and brand and some by appellation – but its basis itself is universal.
While wine labels may have a lot of information on them, not all of it is critical to identifying or assessing the wine itself. Here is our quick guide to reading the five essential details about a wine off its bottle label.
The producer is the same as the brand or the winery or the estate. This info is typically displayed across the front in prominent letters (or in small text at the top or bottom of the label, especially in the case of some French wines), since it tells you who made the wine and where. A producer can be an individual or a family or – in case of wines produced en masse – a business. The producer’s name can have its unique set of associations; such as a legacy of expertise, family reputation, individual care, niche value, or luxury, which can in turn tell you about the wine’s style and merit. For example, the brand ‘Château Lafite Rothschild’ can be found on the label of some of the most exceptional and expensive red wines from the prestigious family winery in Bordeaux, France.
The grape variety tells you, firstly, what wine it is you’re looking at – such as red, white, or rosé; and what kind of wine it is. The varietal is responsible for the distinct aromas, flavours, and textures of the wine. It also determines the wine’s acidity and dryness. For example, a Riesling is a refreshing aromatic white wine with crispy fruit flavours, whereas a Merlot is a vibrant ruby-hued wine with aromas of plum and dark chocolate.
Many wines are produced not from a single grape but from a blend; such as a CMS blend (Cab, Merlot, Syrah). When constituent grapes are not mentioned, the appellation can be an indicator of what grape varieties were used.
Next to producer and grape variety, the region of origin or the appellation of a wine is a key piece of information, since it tells you about additional characteristics of the grape. The region where the grapes are grown can shape the quality of the wine produced through a combination of factors like soil and climate. Some grapes are particular to a region, such as the Negra Mole grape to Portugal’s Algarve region. Some wines, especially the old-world wines known as vin de terroir, are labelled chiefly according to their region – think Chablis or Chianti. For example, Napa Valley on a wine label indicates full-bodied, deep-red wines from California, especially a rich Cab Sauv. As a thumb rule, the more specific the region, the higher the quality and steeper the price; e.g., a Sta. Rita Hills AVA vs Napa Valley.
Most wine labels will display the year in which the grapes were harvested. The vintage can have a huge impact on the quality and character of the wine; despite other key characteristics like region, producer, and varietal remaining constant, the same style of wine with can differ in output from one year to the next. For example, the 2007 vintage of Napa Cabernet is considered far superior to the 2008 vintage. The vintage year can also determine the ageing potential of a fine wine.
Some multi-vintage or non-vintage blends may have ‘NV’ displayed on the label instead of a specific year.
The alcohol content is typically displayed as a percentage by volume (% ABV). For example, ‘14% ABV’ indicates that the wine has 14% alcohol by volume. The ABV is an indicator not only of the intensity of a wine but also of its flavour and body. High ABV wines like a Zinfandel or a Syrah have greater richness and warmth. In the US, ABVs can go up to 17% in the case of some dry wines, whereas in many European regions, only the highest quality wines can have an ABV of 13.5% or more.
Additional Label Information
Aside from the five key elements, there may be additional information or certifications mentioned on a wine label that provide insights into production methods, sustainability practices, wine ingredients, or quality levels.
For example, certain wine regions have specific quality classifications that guarantee a particular level of quality; such as the Italian quality designation DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) for authentic fine wines from specific regions. Eco-conscious wineries may have ‘Certified Organic’ mentioned on the label if the grapes used to make the wine were grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
On the other hand, some labels will have the words ‘Contains Sulfites’ if their sulfite content exceeds 10 mg/litre. Most grapes naturally have sulfur in them and sulfites reduce the risk of oxidation and bacterial infections, but some people suffer from sulfite allergies and the label declaration is important. In fact, the United States requires all imported and domestic wines to display this on their labels.
Once you are able to identify and assimilate the above elements from a wine label, you will have all the pieces of the puzzle needed to make an informed decision about the bottle of wine. Armed with this knowledge of how to read wine labels, you can confidently explore the vast world of wines.