Even for the avid wine drinker, deciding on a bottle of wine can be a daunting task with so many varieties of wine on the market today. Wine labels don’t help either with the various terms in foreign languages and the small print. Sometimes reading a wine label makes you feel like you need a secret decoder ring, but rest assured that this is not to confuse you the customer, but rather to help you. The information on the label is there to tell you about the wine and also the winery and conditions of production. Once you have an idea of what to look for on a wine label, deciphering it shouldn’t require much effort.
The Brand Name: This is the name of the company that has produced the wine. Most often this is the name of the winery or bottler if the winery has several different brands.
Vintage: Most wines will carry the vintage somewhere on the bottle, although this is not a mandatory requirement and will not be on all bottles. A vintage is the year that the grapes used were harvested. Most wine producing countries have laws that require at least 85 percent of the grapes used to be harvested in the specified year of vintage although in the United States this figure can be as high as 95 percent.
Appellation of Origin: This is the geographical area where the grapes were grown, for example “California” or more a more specific vineyard. Most countries have strict laws regarding an appellation classification, which is why like the vintage; at least 85 percent of the grapes used must be from their specified region.
Wine Type: This specifies the grapes used to make the wine. Again this can be as broad as “Red Table Wine” or as specific as Merlot or Chardonnay. Most wine producing countries allow the use of some non-varietal grapes in the blend. In Europe and Australia, at least 85 percent of the wine’s content must be from the named varietals, while in some parts of the United States this figure is much lower at about 75 percent.
Producer and Bottler: What this part of the bottle signifies varies greatly depending on where the bottle of wine originates from. If grapes are harvested and bottled at the winery it is considered to be “estate bottled” and the label will state this using Mise en bouteille(s) au Chateau (French), Gutsabfüllung/Erzeugerabfüllung (German) or simply Estate Bottled.
According to Napa Valley Vintners online (napavintners.com) it is even more specific for American bottled wines and the terminology even more specifically determines how the wine was bottled: “’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.”
Other Required Information: This depends on what country the wine is from. For example, wines sold in the United States are required to have (at least on the back label) alcohol content, contents size, and consumer warnings from the Surgeon General as well as a sulphite warning while in Germany wine are required to have an Amptliche Prüfungs Nummer which is a number received while in testing. The famous wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace in France will carry the term Cru somewhere on the label to indicate that the wine is from a town or producer of high quality.
While this still might be very overwhelming, when looked at from a point of view of the winemaker, a wine label really is there to help you as the consumer, not hinder your decision making. Everything on a wine label is there to inform you of where the wine came from and how it was produced, and while it might take you a lifetime to be able to completely understand every single term that is put on a wine bottle, being able to understand the basics will be advantageous. It is important to remember that rules will vary from country to country as to what is required to be on a wine bottle or specific terms used. What might be required in France might not be required in Chile.