“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a famous adage that has widespread application in the world of wine. While most people would like to explore new wines, we often revert to our reliable known quantities, because we may not know enough to venture beyond our comfort zone. And short of tasting the wine, wine labels are our next best source of information. It’s true that labels can be confusing, inconsistent, and seemingly devoid of information. But if we can learn some basics on how to interpret labels, we’ll be able to expand our palate with more confidence. Let’s learn how to use what information is present—and sometimes absent—to better select wines.
What Labels Tell You—It’s a Good Bit
At a minimum, most high-quality wines will include a grape varietal, a region, and a vintage. But labeling rules for Old World wines—those produced in Europe—and New World wines—those from the United States, South America, Australia, etc.—can vary greatly. An Old World wine label will highlight the region, generally putting the onus on the buyer to know which grapes are associated with that area. For instance, wines from Bordeaux (France) are made from blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet France, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. A Chianti (Italy) is made primarily from Sangiovese, and Rioja (Spain) from Tempranillo. And while these wines are strictly regulated in their home countries for quality, labels for these wines may make no mention of the varietals used. The producers rely on drinkers’ familiarity of these appellations to know the style the of wine, that is how the wine was vinified and aged.
By contrast, New World wine producers will usually denote the grapes used on their labels, which some drinkers may find more user-friendly. And since the New World lacks the millennia of traditions that define Old World wines, it’s best to search for wines that are location-specific. Generally speaking, the more specific the area mentioned on the label, the higher the quality. A wine labeled “California” can be produced from vineyards from all over the state with varying degrees of quality, while a wine labeled “Stags Leap District” comes from a very small region within Napa famous for age-worthy wines.
In the U.S. labels are also required to indicate the alcohol level present in wine, which typically falls between 11% and 15%. And while alcohol level on its own is by no means an indicator of quality, the majority of “balanced” wines tend to fall in the 13%-14% range. Most wines also have a vintage date on the label, indicating when the grapes were harvested. For many larger producers vintage variation is subtle because of winemaking techniques used to make a consistent wine year after year. For smaller producers, vintages can really affect the characteristics of wine. And while most drinkers don’t research vintages for the wines they enjoy, for the few that do, many of a wine’s characteristics can be deduced from the growing conditions in a particular year.
What Labels Don’t Tell You—And We Wish They Did!
While a little basic knowledge is all that’s necessary to explore new wines in confidence, it’s a fact that most of the wine-drinking world truly does not have this background. Pretty bottles and abstract art lure prospective imbibers, but wine labels with clear and objective descriptors of a wine characteristics would be well-received. Thankfully, we are starting to see producers include straightforward, jargon-free, and more user-friendly descriptions of their wines in addition to their catchy packaging. Many more Old World producers are joining this trend as well as they are hoping to promote traditional, seemingly staid wines to younger, less experienced drinkers.
In addition, winemakers are not legally required to disclose the ingredients in each bottle of wine. Surprisingly, there are up to 80 government-approved additives that winemakers can use to correct perceived imbalances or enhance wines. And with the exception of USDA organic wines, which must adhere to federally-regulated standards, winemakers have a lot of freedom to characterize a wine as “natural.” Currently there is no officially accepted standard for natural or sustainable wines. Fortunately, there is a growing trend among some smaller and medium-sized producers to disclose their additives or avoid their use altogether. And while “natural” winemaking is considered a progressive concept in the New World, the truth is, most of the Old World has been making wines with few, if any, additives, chemicals, or irrigation for centuries.
These are just the basics for understanding wine labels, but I would love to help you learn more. Are you looking to try something new? Let’s stoke that adventurous wine spirit together! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thevinicola.com to start hacking those labels!