There has always been a bit of mystery surrounding the labels that adorn wine bottles.
First and foremost, they are designed to attract the attention of consumers — to stand out on supermarket or liquor store or wine shop shelves that are lined with other bottles from other producers. That’s where creative artwork, font selection and overall design come in.
But the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover also applies to wine. The most beautifully designed wine label may be attached to a bottle with only average wine inside, while a label with virtually no “curb appeal” may be attached to a bottle with a world-class wine inside.
That means it’s important to be able to not only look at a wine label, but read it — and understand what the various verbiage means.
There used to be distinct differences between American wine labels and European wine labels. To an extent, there still are. But in recent years, primarily since the establishment of the European Union, greater sameness in the labels has emerged.
As an example, you rarely, if ever, would see the name of the grape used to make the wine on a European label. The wines would be identified by region, and specific regions were connected with specific varieties.
“White Burgundy” equated with Chardonnay, “White Bordeaux” with Sauvignon Blanc (often with some Semillon blended in), Red Burgundy with Pinot Noir, and Red Bordeaux with various blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few other varieties.
In the United States, on the other hand, a vast majority of the wines are labeled by grape variety. That said, it’s still important to note the region shown on the label because specific grape varieties fare better when grown in specific regions.
Let’s say you’re faced with a shelf of Chardonnays, and you’re not familiar with any of the brand names. If you can find one with a regional designation of “Russian River Valley” or “Carneros” or “Monterey County,” to cite three examples, you can be confident that the quality of the wine will be high. For Cabernet Sauvignon, “Napa Valley” or “Alexander Valley” are among the regions that can be depended upon for quality.
Each variety has regions in which it shines, so if you get to know those regions, you have a great chance of selecting a really good bottle of wine.
Finally, don’t ignore the vintage. While many wines can be aged for years or even decades, most are ready to drink and enjoy with a year or two of their vintage. As a general rule, I drink white wines no later than five years past their vintage date (which means I’m finishing up my remaining 2012 and 2013 whites now). I follow the same basic rule for reds, but I may allow a few Cabernets to age a little longer before I open them.
Learn the grape varieties associated with specific regions and pay attention to the vintages, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding the most important information found on a wine label.