What Can be Learned from a Wine Label?

When looking for a bottle of wine it's easy to be persuaded by the label.  But, too often, the persuasion comes from a fancy graphic on the label or a cute name.  There is actually a lot of good written information on the label of a wine bottle.  For this time, let's look at wine labels in the United States.

First, the wine type.  Although mandatory, the wine type may or may not be specific to the type of grapes used to produce the wine.  But, the label will tell you if the wine is a varietal (made from a specific grape) or a blend.  If a wine label specifies a varietal, such as a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon, it must be produced by using at least 75% of that grape type. Otherwise, wine producers refer to them as a "Blend" or "Table Wine."

Next, the location where the wine is from.  If the wine label refers to a state or county, at least 75% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have come from that location. Except in California, where if the label states "California" then 100% of the grapes must have come from within the state.  Then there are specific appellations or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) such as 'Napa' or 'Sonoma.'  If a wine label states a specific AVA, then at least 85% of the grapes must have come from that region.

The vintage, or year when the grapes were harvested, is actually optional on US wine labels.  If a year is stated, then at least 85% of the wine must come from the harvest date shown.  But, if the wine is labeled with a specific AVA, then 95% of the grapes must come from the stated harvest date. The date on a wine label has nothing to do with when it was bottled or released, it simply refers to when the grapes were picked.

Then there are the 'special designations' on a bottle of wine. Words such as "Reserve" or "Private Reserve" may appear on the label, but there is no regulation on these terms in the US.  So, while a winemaker may use the term, it may or may not be anything more than a marketing tool.  But, if you do find that a winemaker produces a particular wine, say a Merlot,  and then produces a Merlot with a "Reserve" designation on the label, it generally means that it is higher quality or finer wine.

Estate wines are those where the wine is labeled "Estate Bottled." This means that the winery grew 100% of the grapes on its owned land, and the winery did all the wine making process (crushing, fermenting and bottling) on the same land.

Alcohol content is required by law to appear on the label.  And, a lot can be determined from this number. Generally, low alcohol content wines (10% or less) are going to be sweeter and higher alcohol content wines (12-14%) are going to be dryer.  So if you have a preference in the amount of sweetness in your wines, pay particular attention to this number.

Then sulfites. If wines contain sulfites, it must be stated on the label.  And generally, all wines are going to have sulfites because it's a preservative.  But, it is used in extremely low levels (approximately 50 parts per million). So, these level are usually undetectable or will go away with brief decanting. 

There's a quick overview of the technical terms on a wine label.  In future articles we'll dive into more specifics in each of these areas.  So get out there, read a few labels with this new found information, pick out a bottle of wine with either a fancy label or one from a great AVA such as Alexander Valley, and enjoy it. Cheers!