The Mysteries of the Wine World

Given the severe winter storm that is expected to arrive later today and the power outages that are anticipated to accompany it, I am publishing the blog earlier this week.

The world of wine can be intimidating, appear complicated and very mysterious.  Understanding the flavours of the large number of grape varieties and complicated regional appellations can be somewhat daunting.

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If you’ve been firmly staying within your comfort zone and continually drinking the same type of wine, it’s time for a change.  Although it’s great to have a safe choice or two, it is good to explore new horizons. There is an exciting world of wine ready to be discovered.

If you insist on staying with the same grape variety, then try wines from different regions and styles. For example, if you normally drink a California Chardonnay, try an Australian one or a French Chablis.  If an Australian Shiraz is your preference, sample a French Syrah. For great Merlot, consider lesser-known varieties with similar flavour profiles, such as Spanish Mencía or Saperavi, an ancient red grape from Georgia. Pinot Noir enthusiasts should explore those wines of Burgundy France, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia or Argentina.  Region can have a great influence on character and flavour.

The total experience, from purchase to consumption, can affect your perception of the wine you are drinking.  Grocery stores are great for picking up a few cans or bottles of your favourite coolers or beer, but not a great option when purchasing wine.  To best ensure that you have a good buying experience, always go to a good quality liquor store or specialty wine shop that has knowledgeable staff. You can ask for advice and receive suggestions, especially if you become a regular at a place with experienced and well-trained employees.

To help you select a good bottle, don’t be afraid to ask about new products or releases, innovative winemakers and local wines, or ask for pairing suggestions for an upcoming dinner. You can help the staff understand your likes by revealing your favourite varieties and styles.  One thing to remember is that there are good wines in every price range so don’t be intimidated by wanting to stay within a specific price range.

Regarding price, it is one of the most common misconceptions about wine. People often have the perception that more expensive wines taste better.  Purchasing wine varietals that you like from less familiar locations can save you money.  Instead of buying wine from the most popular regions, discover reasonably priced quality wines from new, smaller or less popular regions.  For example, Chardonnay (Chablis) from France or California tends to be more costly than a wine of the same varietal from Australia or South Africa. 

When reading the label on the bottle, resist the urge to simply purchase one with an attractive label or an intriguing name.  Neither of these are an indicator of the quality and character of the wine. 

The label will tell you whether it is an Old World or New World wine.  Old World wines are from Europe whereas New World wines are from anywhere but Europe.  New World wine labels will generally identify the actual varietal or varietals that the wine consists of.  In contrast, Old World European wines indicate the regional appellation where it was produced.  Examples would include Bordeaux or Burgundy from France, Chianti from Italy or Rioja from Spain.  However, there are many more appellations.  Back in the blog archives are posts on the various wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. that identify which grape varietals are produced in each region.

Recognizing the name of the wine producer or importer may give you a hint about the quality of the wine, but location and grape variety will provide the best idea of what to expect in a bottle.

The labels will also display the vintage, which indicates the year the grapes were harvested. When purchasing a wine to be enjoyed in the immediate or near future, the vintage doesn’t reveal much about quality.   There is a common misconception that older wines are always better.  Though this applies to some bold wines that need time to rest before reaching their full potential, it represents only about ten percent of wines produced.

Whether a wine bottle has a cork stopper or screw cap is not an indicator of a wine’s quality.  Though cork has been the traditional method for sealing bottles, it is not necessarily the best way.  There are both pros and cons to both methods and neither comes out as a clear winner.  My blog, Cork versus Screw Cap from January 8, 2022, presents the arguments for both.

Lastly, when selecting a wine at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask the wine steward or sommelier for advice.  These are typically well-informed individuals who are there to share their knowledge so take advantage of their presence to receive expert advice.  They will help you select a wine that will both suit your palate and complement the food.

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Good Inexpensive Wine

What is considered cheap or inexpensive depends on who the consumer is. It is a very relative term.  For example, to some people an inexpensive wine is one with a price point under $50, for others it may be one under $10.  The definition of inexpensive or cheap is as individual as the person making the purchase.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am considering a value of under $20 as an inexpensive bottle of wine. 

If a wine is too cheap there are those who believe that profit is being achieved mainly by producing large volumes sacrificing quality.  Producers operating in this manner have minimal control over the quality of the grapes or the manner in which they are produced.     Under these circumstances vintners purchase grapes from a number of different growers whom they have limited or no influence over how the grapes are produced.   However, each producer should be judged on their own merits.

I love the challenge of scoping out good inexpensive wines, especially those that need to mature for a few years before enjoying.

Finding the Diamond in the Rough

There is certainly some luck involved in finding great inexpensive wines but there are ways of putting the odds in your favour.  The clues are often right under your nose starting with the label on the bottle.  Don’t forget to check out the label on the back of the bottle as well.  The label will provide the name of the vintner and often identify the varietal(s).  Selecting a varietal you enjoy will increase the odds of you selecting a wine to your taste.

It will also identify any quality designation that the wine has been provided by the nation where the wine was produced.

The country of origin will also provide clues as to the wine’s flavour and intensity.  Generally speaking, wines produced in hotter climates have more intense flavour.

The label will also display any sustainability or organic qualifications that the wine has.

Information regarding the wines offered for sale will often be provided by the seller.  Look for information in brochures, catalogues, or stock cards that may be available in the store or on the merchant’s web site. 

Many wineries have their own web site which may provide detailed information pertaining to the various wines they produce, including such information as the varietal(s) contained, how the wine was aged, tannin content, acid levels, etc., all of which impact the flavour and help determine if the wine may be a good fit for you.

However, when all else fails or you like to select wines solely on how the label inspires you, simply standing and gazing at the wines on the shelf may be the only information you need.  This is how my wife does it and though I am aghast at this process I cannot argue with her success rate.  Her most recent victory was in selecting a 2019 Fantini Sangiovese which is now our general house wine.  The price is a whopping $8.95.

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Wine Labels

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.

Common Information

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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