How To Read A Wine Label
December 2, 2009
The wine aisle can be an intimidating place, even for seasoned wine aficionados who would like to try something new. The labels range from quirky and fun to stately and regal, from eye-catching to simple. Studies have shown that most consumers choose a wine based on the appeal of its label, but a pretty picture does not necessarily a good wine make. Although few consumers fully understand the information provided on wine labels, there are some key points that will help you to make an informed decision.
- Brand Name
- Appellation of Origin
- Wine Type
- Special Designations
- Vineyard of Origin
- Producer and Bottler
- Estate Bottled
- Alcohol Content
If no brand name is on the label, the bottler's name is considered the brand. It is also useful to refer to the bottler's name if a winery has several brands.
The year designates the year in which the grapes were harvested. In general, U.S. law allows up to 15% of the blend to be from a vintage other than the stated year. If a wine is designated to be from a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA) then it is held to a higher standard of 5%. For example, if the grape source is noted to be "California," then 85% of stated vintage rule is applicable. For wines noted to be from a specific AVA the rule is 95% of the grapes must be from the stated vintage. The vintage bears no relationship to when the wine was bottled.
Wine labels may contain several levels of geographic distinctions:
-California State law requires that 100% of the grapes come from within California.
-Other States Federal law and nearly all other states require that 75% of the fruit must come from within the named state.
-Officially Designated Viticultural Areas.
A wine may be labeled by a grape or varietal name such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, or it may be given a generic name such as "Red Table Wine." Prior to 1983, a wine labeled as a varietal was required to contain at least 51% of the named grape varietal and have the "taste, aroma, and characteristics" of the grape varietal. Beginning in 1983, wines using varietal names must derive at least 75% of their volume from the grape designated.
Wine authorities agree that 100% varietals are not automatically the best wines. The winemaker's art often includes the blending of different varietals. Labeling law does not require that generic names imply anything about the grape varietals in the wine. Many wineries voluntarily list the proportions of the grape varietals that comprise their generic wines.
Labels often contain special terms to indicate unusual qualities of the wine, such as degree of sweetness or color. Sometimes the wine was of such a high standard as to be designated by the winemaker as a special selection or private reserve.
Many wineries name the vineyard in which the grapes were grown because the winery believes the property produces an unusually high-quality grape. The winery or an independent grower may own the vineyard. Federal policy requires that 95% of the grapes must have been grown in the vineyard named.
Mandatory. This part of the label gives a great deal of information about the production of the wine. The label must indicate the bottler and its location. Several descriptions are common:
-"Produced and bottled by" certifies that the bottler fermented 75% or more of the wine. Used in combination with other information on the label, such as a vineyard, this term provides the consumer with significant information about the origin of the wine and who is responsible for its production.
-"Cellared and bottled by" indicates that the bottler has aged the wine or subjected it to cellar treatment before bottling.
-"Made and bottled by" indicates that the bottler fermented at least 75% of the wine (10% before July 28, 1994).
-"Bottled by" indicates that the winery bottled the wine, which may have been grown, crushed, fermented, finished, and aged by someone else.
This term certifies legally that the winery grew 100% of the grapes on land it owns or controls and that the winery crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a continuous process. Both the vineyard and winery must be located in the viticultural area that is stated on the label. (Optional)
This statement on a table wine indicates the alcohol content by volume, with a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5%. However, the tolerance cannot be used to label as a table wine a wine containing more than 14% alcohol. Dessert wines contain more than 14% but no more than 21% alcohol and are permitted a plus or minus margin of 1%.