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HomeBlogDecoding Wine Labels: A Rough Guide

Decoding Wine Labels: A Rough Guide

We’ve all been there: standing in the wine store, staring blankly at the bottles on the shelves and trying to figure out what a wine might possibly taste like, merely from the information on the label. All too often, we find ourselves flustered and simply reaching for a bottle with an attractive picture printed on the front, or going for a tried-and-tested bottle we know we will enjoy. While there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this approach (indeed, it can sometimes lead to us discovering a whole new favourite!), it’s always preferable to make informed choices when it comes to picking our wines, and as wine lovers, we’re always striving to learn more about our favourite drink.

The Problem With Wine Labels

The wine world itself doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help us in decoding the mysteries often printed on bottles. Winemakers in the New World tend to be fairly direct in their labeling, letting us know at the very least which grapes are being used in the wine. Old World wines, however, are often annoyingly obtuse, being more likely to list the name of a region, appellation or ancient, crumbling chateau on the label… something from which it can be extremely difficult to ascertain any concrete information. Add into the mix the irritating use of archaic French terms, technical jargon and various legally-required bits and pieces of information each country demands, and you have wine labels capable of baffling even the most hardened connoisseur.

So, what should we do? On the one hand, we could continue with our guesswork. While this might be totally fine for some, it does present certain problems. Firstly, you might have quite specific tastes in wine – I, for example, don’t enjoy drinking red wines with almost any hint of sweetness to them – and might be looking to avoid certain characteristics in your bottles. It’s also a problem if you’re looking to match your wine with food. A badly thought-out pairing or disappointing random selection can lead to unpleasant clashes on the palate, and whole dinners can be ruined by panic or blind buying.

With all of these things in mind, let’s take a look at a trio of useful tips to bear in mind when you’re reading a wine label. While these won’t necessarily remove all of the obstacles we’ve just discussed, they will give you some points to consider next time you’re feeling your cheeks reddening at the wine shop, unsure of what you’re looking at on the shelf in front of you! With a little practice, a little background reading, and plenty of exploration in the ever-fascinating world of wine, before long you’ll be selecting your vino with confidence and ease.

Considering Grape Varietals

There are tens of thousands of grape varietals in the world. Each and every wine producing country of the Old World has their native and indigenous species of vine. Most of them will import vines and clones from the great wine nations, too, no matter how proud they may be of their heritage and wine identity. The ‘noble grapes’ of France, Spain, Italy and Germany found their way across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and today, you can find the most prominent examples of these – such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon – growing everywhere from the hillsides of central Italy, to the valleys of the Andes mountains and the deserts of Australia.

  • Single varietal wines

The majority of New World wines – by which we mean countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Chile, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – will list the name of the predominant grape varietal used in the wine on the bottle’s label. Printed in big letters across the bottle, you’ll be able to quite easily see which grape the wine is made from, and from your own knowledge, you should then be able to have a fairly decent idea of the nature and character of the wine inside. This is also true of certain Old World countries, too. Austria, Germany, parts of Spain and Italian wine regions such as Sicily will generally list the main grape on their bottles, making things a little easier for wine explorers such as ourselves.

  • It’s all in the blend

Some wines will be made from a blend of several grapes (indeed, it’s becoming increasingly common to see wineries in the US and Canada emulating the classic blends of France’s Bordeaux and Rhone regions), and while they might be labelled as ‘red blend’ or ‘white blend’ on the bottle, it’s highly likely that somewhere you’ll be able to find a list of precisely which grapes such a blend entails on the label.

Other New World wineries – and this is something we’re seeing more and more in Australian viticulture – will experiment with simple blends of two grape varietals, in an attempt to bring out the best characteristics of each strain of grape. These are often balanced blends (rarely 50/50, but often not far off this), and they’ll most commonly be labeled with those grape varietals clearly visible as the name of the wine itself, or with this information on the front of the bottle.

  • What you see isn’t always what you get

It’s absolutely worth bearing in mind that the grape varietal you see listed on a wine label doesn’t necessarily represent everything you get in the bottle. Different countries have different laws regarding the way wines are marketed and labeled, and this means that even though a wine might be sold as a Pinot Noir, it could well have other grapes blended surreptitiously inside. Why? Because winemakers often need to boost the character, flavour, aroma or colour of a wine, or inject higher levels of tannins and acids. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – too many restrictions on winemakers can often lead to stagnation of innovation, and inferior produce.

In the USA, the minimum percentage for a wine to be listed with a varietal is 75% (with the exception of Oregon, where it’s 90%). In Argentina and Chile, it’s 80%. Across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, wines must have 85% of their listed varietal in the blend to be labeled as a single varietal wine.

Labelling By Region

In the Old World countries of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, it’s far more likely that you’ll come across wines named after the region from which they came, rather than after the grapes used. These wines trade on the reputations of their regions, and each individual region will be governed by a strict set of rules dictating which grape varietals can be used by the winery.

  • Small is beautiful

There’s a general rule of thumb you can follow, should you feel confused or anxious about the quality of such Old World wines, and which can help you find the best wines for your needs. Generally speaking, the smaller and more specific the location listed on the bottle, the higher quality the wine will be – and while this isn’t a totally foolproof approach, it’s not a bad starting place if you’re keen to explore many of the great wine regions of Europe next time you’re shopping for a bottle.

The reason for this is as follows: If you come across a bottle of French wine which is listed as a ‘vin de France’ with ‘France’ listed as the ‘home’ of the wine, the chances are this bottle isn’t necessarily going to be particularly superior in quality. Why? Because it hasn’t been made according to the rules of a particular region, and hasn’t been deemed of a high enough quality or consistency with the law to represent the region it actually came from. Indeed, it might be made from a blend of all different kinds of grapes from different regions, something which rarely leads to a quality product.

If, on the other hand, you’re buying a bottle of French wine with a very specific location on the bottle (for example, Pauillac in Bordeaux), then this bottle will have been awarded the right to bear that name, due the fact that it contains only the grapes permitted for growth in that appellation. As well as this, the vintners will have had to prove that their wine has passed all kinds of quality assurance tests (which range from the way the grapes are grown, to where and how the wines were vinified and bottled), and a more superior product can thus be expected.

  • Famous regional examples

It takes a bit of time and research to learn which regions produce which kinds of wines, but it’s a rewarding way to spend your time. Furthermore, the rise of mobile technology and wine apps has made this process easier than ever, and makes such research possible even when you’re actually in the wine store browsing the shelves. Some famous examples are already well known: Bordeaux red wines will be made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Chianti wines will be made from Sangiovese, Barolo from Nebbiolo and Rioja from Tempranillo grapes (all with some other varietals often blended into the mix).

What’s in a Name?

The 21st century has seen a more youthful, playful and often even slightly ironic approach to wine labelling come to the fore. Hip, young, innovative wineries have muscled their way onto the scene, and have succeeded in shaking up some of the stale old wineries with their cavalier approach to labelling and naming wines… even in some of the most respected and traditional wine regions on earth.

Often, these wines will not give you any information at all about contents of the bottle, and will rely on flashy graphics, artistic labels and fantastical or humorous names for their wines. This may be because the winemakers feel the produce is capable of speaking for itself, or it may be because the blend of grapes used in the wine is somewhat unorthodox or unusual – or even technically illegal in certain appellations and wine regions.

How then are you supposed to know what to expect in the bottle? Well, you’ll either have to research the wine on the winery website, or simply take the plunge and try a glass for yourself.

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris is a wine critic and journalist from Bristol, UK. He is a lover of life's finer things and has a particular fondness for Alsatian and Eastern European wines, which he fell in love with during his three years working in Budapest.

1 Comment

  • February 13, 2018

    Love the information in this article. I’m not a wine connoisseur by any means but I do love a good bottle of red Cab Sab.