Napa, CA

Decoding the Wine Label

Paige Comrie

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Wine labels are incredibly important. The information a producer chooses to include (or not include) is there for a reason. It’s meant to communicate something to us as consumers. Oftentimes, it’s the only communication a winemaker has with potential customers. Wineries and their marketing departments deeply consider everything about the package.

As a wine beginner, I know labels can often feel like hieroglyphics, but it doesn’t have to be this way! This article will help you get a lot better at making sense of the information you find on a label and how you can use it to figure out whether or not you’ll like the wine inside.

Three Ways Wines are Labelled

Wines are typically labelled in one of three ways – by variety, by region, or by name.

  • By Variety – these bottles will list the grape varietal clearly on the label. In the US, 75% of wine produced here is labeled by variety. 85% of the wines in Australia, Austria, Argentina, and Germany are labelled this way as well. Thankfully, it’s fairly common, as it’s the most intuitive way for people to buy wine as a consumer.

  • By Region – Wines that are labelled by region follow a strict set of legal rules that dictate what’s inside of the bottle. This is where wine can sometimes feel confusing, as it requires the knowledge that red Bordeauxs can only be made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Or that white Burgundy is Chardonnay.

    In these cases where it’s labelled by region, it will be labelled with an “appellation credential”. In the world of wine, appellations are specific geographical regions in which grapes are grown. It’s always okay to do a quick google search, scan the wine label with Vivino, or search the region in PocketWine. You do not need to memorize these appellations and what they mean from the start; give them a try and if you find one you like, do the research on it. Learn some. In time, you’ll understand these wines by heart. But there’s nothing wrong with not having them memorized like a textbook in the beginning. I’ve been studying wine professionally for years now, and there’s still regions that I couldn’t rattle off every single wine region and its grapes without doing some studying first!

    Most of the time (but not always), if you turn the bottle around, the back label will show a breakdown of the varietals inside. If it’s there, you won’t need to use an alternative app to figure it out.

    So why are wines labelled by geographical location? Because geography is crucial in producing high-quality wine. There’s an idea in wine that you’ll hear people refer to quite frequently, and this idea is “terroir”. It’s a French word without a literal English translation, but the gist of it is that terroir shapes the final wine; factors such as soil, topography, climate, and even weather patterns year-to-year affect how the final wine turns out. Within certain geographical locations, you can expect wines to be similar. You’ll notice that most Napa Pinot Noir is bold and jammy; most Burgundian Pinot Noir, however, is delicate, earthy, and refined. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but general outlines that help consumers know what to expect inside the bottle.

    When labelled with a geographical location, there are often rules for what types of grapes can be grown or requirements for specific quality levels, especially in “Old World’ wine countries such as France and Germany. Sometimes though, it truly does just dictate a geographical region, however, such as Napa or the Finger Lakes. Even if there’s no legal requirement for what grapes can be grown or style of wine can be made, however, you’ll often find that wines from similar geographical locations have similar styles due to the “terroir” factor.

  • By Name – the third and final way wines are sometimes labelled is by name. This is a “fantasy” name can either be made up by the winery to specify a blend, or can be the name of a vineyard or place. A common example of this is “19 Crimes” – this is a red wine blend from a winery in Napa. It’s a fun name to describe a wine that’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

After you’ve figured out the main substance of the wine, there’s a lot more information you can find and use on the label to decide if you’ll like what’s inside or not.

  • Winery/Producer Name
  • Vintage – this is the year the grapes were harvested. Some wines are better younger, some are better older, and a lot of it comes down to taste preference. Collectors and intense wine-enthusiasts will pay a lot of attention to vintage, as it can tell you a lot about the harvest, but most casual wine drinkers don’t need to memorize this (I don’t).
  • Alcohol By Volume -- The alcohol level actually says a lot about a wine. Many European wine regions only allow their highest quality wines to have 13.5% ABV and above. In America, ABVs can be quite high (up to 17% on some dry wines) and the alcohol level is an indication of how rich/big the wine may taste. Many higher alcohol wines are made from riper grapes and tend to have more fruit forward flavors. Again, this is a generalization and there are exceptions to the rule.

Other information you might find (but might not!)

  • Estate Bottled Wine - Estate Bottled means the wine was grown, produced and bottled on the wine estate. There are “negotiant” wine producers, such as Georges Deobueof, who purchase both grapes or wine from many locations and bottle them together; in this case, it is not “estate”.
  • Reserve -- The indication of Reserve sounds fancy but it doesn’t actually mean anything official. There are no rules to what a reserve wine is and thus this word on a bottle could mean nothing at all. Many small producers use it to indicate their top-tier wines that use the winemaker’s highest quality production wines from the best barrels. Take this indicator with a grain of salt if the wine you’d like to buy seems too good to be true.
  • Old Vine -- The use of grapes from older vines typically lends to more concentrated flavors in a wine. However, there are no rules to say how old the old vine must be to get an “Old Vine” designation. Producers use it to help indicate the style of wine they produce. Vines can range from 15 to 115 years that get the tag “Old Vines” on the label. Some wines that are designated “Old Vines” have a blend of young vine grapes and old vine grapes together.

Action – head to your nearest wine store and practice reading wine labels; treat yourself to something new!

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Paige Comrie is a Certified American Wine Expert and holds her WSET3 Advanced Certificate in Wine. She's passionate about helping connect consumers with great bottles of wine, and inspiring people to live the "wine lifestyle". This phrase, to her, means elevating the everyday, enjoying the little moments, and taking time to sip and savor everything life has to offer. In addition to wine and food, Paige also writes on the subject of Social Media and Digital Marketing, specifically focusing on the wine industry. Follow her on Instagram @winewithpaige

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