How to Read a Wine Label for Beginners [Traps to Avoid]
How 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 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.
Great Tip for Choosing Wine Based on the Label!
It's very easy to get swayed by pretty wine labels and price tags, in other words, clever marketing!
A solid rule I have for choosing new wine in the store is for a label to be as specific as possible when it comes to the region.
The more specific a bottle can be on where the wine was produced is generally an indicator of quality.
For example, try and avoid a wine that simply declares the country of origin. You'll find this on budget wines like Jacob's Creek. It doesn't mean they're automatically bad but they're unlikely to "wow" you, that's for sure.
The more specific and local a wine label is about it's origins the better. We want the specific valley or even the hill where the grapes were grown.
Just be aware that this is likely to make a wine more expensive too.
Understanding the Basics of How to Read a Wine Label
Although some information on bottled wines is compulsory in all countries (wine name, volume, alcohol, manufacturer or bottler name, country of origin), labels can be quite country sensitive.
This is because laws and regulations change by country and sometimes even by region, 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 on the 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 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:
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 an 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 a wine beginner would look for when buying a wine?
In my case, it would be a grape variety, or a region I liked or I had heard about.
This may sound easy but things can get complicated for Old World wines.
Reading Old World Wine Labels – It Ain’t Easy
The 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, on Italian labels you will find the classification of 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 (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée).
France also has 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?
Classifications 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 really know the grapes involved in their production?
Unfortunately there isn't an easy solution for this, especially for French wines.
Their labels, in most cases, will not tell you which grape they are made of (this is true with many Bordeaux reds).
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 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 come from old vine plants. These normally yield less fruit 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
On 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, 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.
For example, in US the law allows the producer to indicate just one grape variety if it occurs in concentrations of 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 definitely more straight forward and consumer friendly. So next time you're 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 drinking.
Often this consumer friendly approach is enhanced by an extremely informative back label, suggesting wine and food pairings as well.
Finally, you will usually also find a government health warning. This is something that is consistent across wine bottles. It will remind you of the health implications of excessive drinking.
A Final Suggestion
There's a bit of debate about the use of the term 'Estate' on wine bottle labels.
In most countries the term 'Estate' means that the winery grows the grapes and makes the wine. The whole process is governed by one entity.
However, in the US only the term 'Estate Bottled' is regulated by law. So US winemakers producers are free to be liberal with the term 'Estate'. It can be used even if the grapes were grown elsewhere by somebody else.
In the US, 'Estate Bottled' wines are made and bottled on site with locally grown grapes.
Therefore, when the terms 'Estate Bottled' and 'Single-Vineyard' are found on wine bottle labels you can expect a wine to be higher quality and more expensive.
However, these terms don't guarantee good wine. Nor are they the sole indicators of good wine.
There are equally amazing wines that are composed of grapes blended from multiple locations. Multiple locations means multiple flavor and aroma characteristics produced by the different terroir.
Wine is anything but simple!
Interpreting a wine label can be as difficult as trying to understand hieroglyphics sometimes!
But, the good news is that the more you look at them the more familiar you'll become and choosing your wines will become easier!