How to Read a Wine Label for Beginners

how to read a wine labelHow many times have you found yourself staring with a quizzical look at the wine shelves in a supermarket or wine shop with no clue of what to buy and ending up choosing the wine based on the few little things that you know? A grape variety, a particular brand or, very often, the price.

I know, buying a good bottle of wine is never easy (not even for ‘experts’, if it can make you feel better) and unless it is something we already know, our choice will most often be based on our budget or on the shop assistant’s recommendation.

But a great help, even for the most inexperienced wine drinkers, may come from the label; and if interpreting the label can be a struggle, especially with old world wines, I’d like to give you some tips on how to read a wine label that may be helpful in understanding what you are choosing.

Understanding the Basics of How to Read a Wine Label

Although some information on bottled wine are compulsory in all countries (wine name, volume, alcohol, manufacturer or bottler name, country of origin), labels can be quite country sensitive as laws and regulations may change so I will try to give you a few crucial indications on the label differences between the major wine producing countries.

Producers also have a certain degree of freedom, although increasingly limited, but often they can use a fantasy name, that can eventually create even more confusion.

Many wines have two labels, one front and one on the back, to simplify the appearance of the first and at the same time to provide all the “legally” required information. They can also use the increased space to include more actual details on how the wine is produced, or even some helpful tasting notes!

Information That Is Generally Included Everywhere

Legally, whatever the country, all the information provided on the label should not only just be truthful but also verifiable: that is to say that all the processes and features that cannot be proved or better certified should not be declared, as potentially misleading.

Therefore, on the label, the consumer can and should find answers to questions that, legitimately and spontaneously, can arise when buying a bottle such as:

  • Wine name (although, as said, that may be a fantasy one or it may correspond to an obscure European appellation) or variety
  • Name and address of the producer and bottler (if different)
  • Region and country of origin
  • Bottle volume
  • Alcohol content
  • Vintage is optional only in case of bulk wine (the lesser category).
Note that you will also often find the note “contains sulphites“. This is compulsory in most countries when the wine contains more than 10 mg/l of Sulphur Dioxide (and unfortunately this can happen quite easily as the compound is regularly used as antibiotic and antioxidant during fermentation and bottling).

Unfortunately, all this information, albeit necessary and surely indicative of certain wine features, do not give enough information to the ordinary wine consumer.

So what is the first thing normally a wine beginner would look for when buying a wine? A grape variety, or a region they know they like or they have heard about. This may sound easy but things can get complicated for old world wines.

Reading Old World Wine Labels – It Ain’t Easy

old world wine labelThe reason is that, even if there is a general European wine qualification that is common among countries, there are also, for each country, different classifications.

For example, in terms of quality qualification, on Italian labels you will find the indications Vino da Tavola, IGT, DOC and DOCG, while in France there will be Vin de table, Vin de Pais, Vin delimité de qualité superieure and AOC; in both cases, being the latter the upper classification. France has also sub-qualification systems that vary from region to region making things quite complicated even to the most knowledgeable sommelier. Spain, Portugal and other European countries have very similar classification names (though of course translated in the relative languages). Are you confused yet?

Qualifications and the language differences unfortunately aren’t the only confusing bits.

The main difficulty for the ordinary consumer is actually how to recognize a wine without knowing the names of all the appellations. Most of you will have heard about Chablis, Sancerre, Barolo, Rioja and Chianti, but how many do really know the grapes involved in their production?

Unfortunately there is easy solution for this, especially for French wines. Their labels, in most cases, will not tell you which grape they are made of. I recommend that you have your Smartphone handy so that you can look it up when you’re buying a bottle or ordering a glass of wine at the a restaurant.  However, Spanish and Italian wines have made life a little bit easier for us, as often you will find the grape blend on the label on the back.

On Spanish or Italian bottles you may also read things such as ‘Classico’, ‘Riserva’, or ‘Crianza’. These are legal definitions regarding the ageing process or the area of origin, and not necessarily something connected with the quality of the wine.

  • The Italian inscription ‘Classico’ declares that the specific wine comes from the historic appellation area
  • Riserva (or ‘Crianza’ for Spanish wines) refers to a wine that spends a longer time in the cellar before entering the market.

On the labels of some fine wines, you can even find a quote to the single vineyard or ‘Cru’ (for French wines); this means that the grapes are all coming from a specifically named and legally delimited vineyard known for its high quality production.

Other times you may find the “old vines or vielles vignes or viñas viejas” inscription indicating that the grapes are coming from old vine plants, that normally are less vigorous and productive but can produce fruit with deeper and more complex flavours. Unfortunately there is no legal definition of the minimum age of the vine necessary to call them ‘old’, so this can be a deceptive information!

Reading New World Wines Labels

new world wine labelOn the other hand, new world wines (e.g. from America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) almost always use the variety as the primary information element, followed by country and region of origin as well as the other compulsory information explained above.

Be aware though that, depending on the country, the grape variety indicated on the bottle, may not be completely pure, as for example in US the law allows to indicate just one grape variety if this occurs to up the 75 or 85% of the blend (differences depending on the producing state).

Nonetheless, it is clear that the easiest-reading labels are the New World ones. They are straight forward. So when you are buying a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there will be no space for doubts. An easy and clear label will tell you what you are buying and will be drinking.

Often this consumer friendly approach is enhanced by an extremely informative back label, suggesting wine and food pairings as well.

Finally, US labels also require including Government Warning, although we may have done without it!

A Final Suggestion

Finally do never forget to check the bottling information which can give you some extra info.

When the wine has been estate bottled it means that the producer has followed the whole process, from the vineyard until the moment the cork has closed the bottle and this is often the guarantee of a wine representing the winemaker’s philosophy.

When the label says “bottled by…” it is because that company has bought the grapes from one or more grape growers and then just processed them. Not necessarily it has to be a bad thing, but I always tend to go for the first option.

As you can see, interpreting a wine label can be as difficult as trying to understand hieroglyphics but good news is that the more you look at them the more you’ll become familiar with them and choosing your wines will be everyday easier!

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