The Secrets to Reading a Wine Label

labelWhen you’re buying a can of corn, there’s usually not much mystery involved. True, there are variations such as “cream style” and “no salt added,” but other than that, determining what’s inside the can is a pretty straightforward exercise.

Oh, if only it were so easy with a wine label. The information you’ll find on the label of our favorite adult beverage ranges from very little to a whole lot, including terminology that may or may not have “legal” meaning.

Labels from European countries can be truly daunting, particularly if there’s a language barrier to overcome. So, for the purposes of today’s blog, we’ll stick to the secrets of deciphering an American wine label.

Here’s a look at the key elements you either will or are likely to encounter:

  1. The brand name. This most often is the name of the winery or producer, but it also could be one of a number of different brand names used by a single producer.
  2. The vintage. This is the year that’s shown, and it’s indicative of when the grapes were harvested — not when the wine was bottled or released to the public. For a vintage to be shown, 100% of the grapes used to make the wine must have come from that year. (Note: Non-vintage wines are most common among sparkling wines, although a more precise term would be “multiple vintage.”)
  3. The type of wine. Most often, a varietal grape name (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, et al) is used. One exception would be for special blends, which typically call for a…
  4. Fanciful Name. Often, there’s a story behind such a name — the name of the winemaker’s daughter, the type of trees overlooking the wine estate, an unusual type of soil in the vineyard, etc.
  5. A special designation. In America, it’s common to see terms such as “Barrel Select” on a label, but be aware that these terms are not regulated.
  6. Appellation of Origin. This is one area that’s strictly regulated. The more precisely an area is listed on the label, the higher the percentage of grapes there must be from that area. A “California” designation, for example, means that the grapes used could be from multiple locations within the state. A “Dry Creek Valley” designation means that at least 85% of the grapes from that defined area must have been used to make the wine.
  7. Alcohol Content. This is simply the wine’s percentage of alcohol content by volume. Generally speaking, it will be lower for white wines than for reds.
  8. Estate Bottled. If you’re looking for a “hands-on” wine, made by a vintner who was involved in every step of the process, look for these two words on the label. They mean that 100% of the grapes used to make the wine were grown, crushed, fermented, finished and bottled on the same property.

There’s one other term you’ll find on a lot of American wine labels: Reserve. We’ll take a look at its meaning in our next blog.

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Posted in Wine Buzz, Wine FAQ

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