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How to Read a Wine Label

by winenews on Oct.23, 2008, under Tips & Terms

Wine Name

The standards for naming a wine vary depending on its origin.  In many European countries a wine is named for the growing area or appellation where it originated. For example, Bordeaux Supérieur or Chablis are all French ACs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée); Chianti is an Italian DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita), and Rioja is a Spanish DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada).   In some areas like the United States , Australia , New Zealand , South Africa , and South America , and in France ‘s Alsace region, the grape variety (such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay) is often the name of the wine.

Proprietary names are sometimes used when a wine doesn’t fit into either of the previous guidelines. For example, a wine might be a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend.  Since it doesn’t contain 75 percent of one grape variety, it cannot (in the United States ) be named after a specific grape variety.

Wine Type

The label information regarding the type of wine is very general, usually in the form of basic terms like “red table wine,” “dry red wine,” “white wine,” “still white wine,” or “sparkling wine.” Such terms simply place the wine in a generic category.  In the United States , for example, unless a wine contains at least 75 percent of a particular grape variety, it cannot use the grape’s name on the label. For example a wine labeled “red table wine” could be a blend of the five Bordeaux grape varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Producer

The name of the producer is often the most important information on the label. That’s because some producers have a reputation for producing high-quality wines year after year, whereas others have sporadic or less than stellar records. For example, a single grand cru vineyard in burgundy can have numerous producers, with some making consistently higher-quality wine than others. The name of the producer can be the name of a winery in countries like the United States and Australia , of a château in some parts of France like Bordeaux , of a domaine in other French areas like Burgundy , and of wine estates in Italy , Spain , and Germany . The exact name of the producer is important because in many areas, such as France and Germany , there are a number of producers with the same surname. Therefore, knowledge of both Christian name and surname is necessary to differentiate producers.

Bottler

The name of the bottler is often the same name as the producer, but sometimes a company other than the producer actually bottles the wine.  In such a case the label would read something like: “Bottled For ABC Winery by XYZ Company.” A label that says “Estate Bottled” means the wine was bottled by the producer.

Country of Origin

The country of origin is the country where the wine is produced. However, depending on that country’s laws, it may not necessarily be where all the grapes were grown.

Quality of Wine

The quality of the wine is often implied by the rating the wine receives in the producing country’s appellation system, and sometimes by wine type. For example at the lowest level of Italy’s quality ranking are the vino da tavola wines (table wines), surpassed by vino tipico wines, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines, and the highest level, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines. Although choosing an Italian wine of DOCG status doesn’t always mean it will be better than those of lesser rankings, it usually indicates a wine of high quality.

Vintage

The year indicated on a wine label is the vintage, or the year the grapes were harvested. In the United States , a wine label may only list a specific vintage if 95 percent of the wine comes from grapes harvested that year. If a blend of grapes from 2 years or more is used, the wine is either labeled non-vintage (NV) or there’s no mention of date.

Alcohol Content

Alcohol by volume information is typically   included on wine labels. For table wine, the U.S. requirement is a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent and a maximum of 14 percent. The label variance can be up to 1.5 percent. For example, a wine label stating “Alcohol 12.5% By Volume” can legally range anywhere from 11 to 14 percent. However, wines cannot exceed the upper or lower limit. The alcohol-by-volume range for sherry is 17 to 20 percent, for port it’s 18 to 20 percent; both have a label variance of 1 percent.

Bottle Volume

A typical full-size wine bottle holds 750ml (milliliters).  The volume figure, such as 750ml or 1.5l (liters), is sometimes molded into the bottle glass rather than printed on the label. Therefore, if the label doesn’t designate the bottle size, check the base of the bottle for the indication.

Sulfite Notice

The words “Contains Sulfites” indicate that sulfur dioxide (SO2) — a colorless, water-soluble, nonflammable gas — was used somewhere in the grape-growing or winemaking process and that the resulting wine contains 10 ppm or more of sulfites, which can cause severe allergic reactions in certain individuals.  Sulfites are used as a preservative either on the grapes just after picking, or possibly later in the wine making process.


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