Wine bottle labels were originally intended to relay information about the wine inside the bottle. However, over time they have transformed into a form of art. Modern wine labels are more artistic than ever. From classic to contemporary styles, they tell a story about the wine inside. People, such as my wife, will decide on which wine to purchase solely by the appearance of the label. Although I am not in favour of this approach I must admit she has had a good track record of selecting wines in this manner.
From a more traditional perspective, wine labels contain a lot of useful information to help you select the perfect wine for you. The trick is to be able to decipher the information presented. Generally speaking, European winemakers label their wine in accordance with the location where it was produced, whereas new world vintners (i.e. Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa and South America) label their wines according to the type of grapes they are made from. Very simply, if you familiarize yourself with the major wine-producing regions and grape varietals grown, the label will tell you whether the wine is dry or sweet, light and fruity or full-bodied.
European Wine Labels
Begin by locating on the label the name of the country where the wine comes from. These wines are often referred to as “Old World” wine that is from one of the countries that are thought to be the first countries to make wine. Countries that are considered to be old world winemakers include France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Georgia, Hungary, Switzerland, Israel and Lebanon.
Old World wines tend to be lower in alcohol content, and lighter and more restrained in taste, although this is not always the case. The grapes tend to ripen with more acidity and less sugar. As a result, Old World wines are typically fresh and acidic with a lower amount of alcohol. New World wines, on the other hand, tend to be very juicy and full-bodied with higher levels of alcohol.
Next check the quality designation. Each Old World country has its own wine rating system. Generally they rank from superior quality down to table wine which will have the lowest ranking. The quality designations for several of the European countries include:
- AOC (Appellation of Controlled Origin)
- VDQS (Wines of Superior Quality)
- Vins de Pays (Country Wine)
- Vins de Table (Table Wine)
- QWSA (Quality Wine with Special Attributes)
- QBA (Quality Wine from Specific Appellations)
- Deutscher Landwein (Superior Table Wine)
- Deutscher Tafelwein (Simple Table Wine)
- DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin)
- DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin)
- IGT (Typical Geographical Indication)
- Vini di Tavola (Table Wines)
- DO (Denomination of Origin)
- DOC (Denomination of Qualified Origin)
There is only one classification indicating a good quality wine
- DO (Denomination of Controlled Origin)
Most wines are vintage wines and the label will tell you the year that the wine was made. If the year is not on either the front or rear label it may be printed on the bottle neck. Vintage wines are made of grapes from the same harvest year. Non-vintage wines are made from a blend of grapes from different harvest years so the year will not appear on the label.
The region where the wine was produced should appear on the front of the label. The key is that different types of grapes are grown in each region. For example, in France, Alsace produces fruity, Germanic wines; the Bordeaux region produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the Champagne region produces sparkling white wines; Beaujolais produces a light red wine that is designed to be consumed right away.
The region is an indicator of quality. High quality wines are often identified as being produced in a very specific location. A label listing a town will be of a higher quality than one that identifies only the region.
Lastly, the shape of the bottle will be unique to the type of wine. In France, straight, high-shouldered bottles contain Bordeaux wines – green glass for red wines, clear glass for white. In Burgundy, the Loire, and the Rhone they use gently-shouldered bottles. Outside of France, this type of bottle sometimes contains Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Tall, slender bottles are usually from Germany and Alsace, and tend to contain Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Gewürztraminer.
Non-European Wine Labels
When looking to purchase a New World wine the first thing to do is identify the country of origin. If it isn’t on the front label it should be on the back label.
New World wines tend to vary greatly. Warmer climates produce wines that have bolder, fruity flavours and tend to be more full-bodied than Old World wines, and usually have a higher level of alcohol.
For New World wines the brand is also the name of the vineyard that produced the wine, and it is often the main name on the label. It will be written in the largest type size, and usually appears at the top of the front label.
As with Old World wines, the wines are usually vintage if they are identified by the year they were produced and non-vintage wines are produced from grapes harvested during different years.
After the brand-name the grape varietal is usually the second-largest identifier on the label. New World wines label their bottles according to the type of grape that was used to make the wine. In order for a varietal to be identified on the label the wine must contain at least 75% of that type of grape.
The vineyard will often be identified on the label providing the vast majority of the grapes used are from the specified vineyard. Not all wines will list a vineyard on the label. If one is identified it is because the vintner believes the vineyard attributes special qualities to the wine produced.
If there is a designated viticultural area, for example California’s Napa Valley, it will often appear on the label. However, in order for the designation to be included a minimum of 85% of the grapes in the wine must come from the identified area.
If the phrase “Estate Bottled” appears on the label, 100% of the grapes in that wine were grown, processed, fermented and bottled at the same location.
Lastly the level of alcohol will appear neat the bottom of the label. The percentage of alcohol may range from 7% up to 23% depending on the type of wine. Sweeter wines will have a higher percentage of alcohol than dryer wines, and overall New World wines tend to have a higher alcohol content than Old World wines.
Some information can be common to both European as well as New World labels. That information may include the following:
Inclusion of the name “ Reserve” sounds impressive but it has no official meaning as there are no rules regarding when it may appear on a wine bottle. Many small producers use it to indicate their top-tier wines but that is not required to be the case.
There are also no rules surrounding the use of the term “Old Vines” or “Vielles Vins”. Producers use this term to help give a sense to the style of wine contained in the bottle. Vines can range from 10 to 100 years old. Also wines with this designation can contain a blend of grapes from young vines as well as the old.
Finally, the phrase “Contains Sulphites” is a requirement for any wine for which it applies. Sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions which cause wine to spoil. They generally have no effect on the majority of wine drinkers. Sulfites in wine are surprisingly lower than in a lot of processed foods. Wine ranges from about 5 mg per litre to about 200 mg per litre. The maximum legal limit is 350 mg per litre. In comparison, a decent dry red wine typically contains about 50 mg per litre of sulfites
For individuals who have sensitivity to sulfites in foods such as french fries, cured meats, cheese and canned soup, they should probably opt for sulfite-free wines. There are some natural wines that do not use sulfites in their processing.
The wine label is essential in helping you decide which wine you purchase. Whether it be to convey the type and quality of wine you want to drink or whether, like my wife, to decide based on the artistic impression the label makes on you. Either way, your interpretation of the label will be key in deciding which wine you will buy.