A guide to reading (and understanding!) wine labels

A guide to reading (and understanding!) wine labels

May 22, 2018

When you walk into a bottle shop of any kind, being met with row upon row of wines from different regions, different varieties and different tastes can be immensely confusing. We’ve previously written about how wine is the most confusing product you can buy, and the tendency for wine experts to speak like Shakespearian poets certainly isn’t helping matters!
So, if you’re standing in a wine shop and you’re looking for a bottle for dinner, to take to a friend’s, or just something to sip on as the weather gets that little bit colder, what do you look for, and how do you tell what type of wine it really is? Well, friends, it can be broken down into three simple categories: labelling by grape variety, labelling by region and country, or labelling by a different, creative name.


Labelling by grape variety

When you look at a bottle of wine and the largest or most prominent feature is “grapey” sounding words like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, then it’s a grape variety styled label. There are thousands and thousands of different wine varieties (which adds to the confusion!) and even more puzzling for those not in the know, is the fact that some wines are blends, and the label will reflect that it’s a wine with more than one grape.
Varietal labelling tells you that the type of grape/s listed comprise most of the wine that’s in the bottle in your hands, but what it doesn’t do is guarantee you that the wine you’re holding is 100% of the variety or varieties they list. Additionally, each major wine producing country has their own set of minimum requirements to label wine by variety, most of which are at 85%. Those minimums are:

  • 75% USA (except for Oregon, which is weirdly exceptional at 90%)
  • 80% Argentina
  • 85% across continental Europe (Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal)
  • 85% South Africa
  • 85% United Kingdom
  • 85% South Africa
  • And in this part of the world, both Australia and here in New Zealand it’s 85% as well.

Labelling by country and/or region
This is also known as “vin de terroir” (van der tear-wah), which in French means ‘wine of the earth’. Wines like Rioja (ree-oh-ha), Bordeaux (bore-doh), Sancerre (son-sair), Chianti (kee-untee), and Sauternes (sor-turn, a delicious dessert wine, if you haven’t come across it!) - are labelled by region. This style of labelling is almost exclusively used in ‘old world’ wine producing countries such as France, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Labelling by region became popular hundreds of years ago, when a number of different varieties grew in the same vineyards together, and were all blended as one into wine.
The thing about labelling by region is that it’s often predictable. The types of soil, climate, varietals grown, etc. are all usually standardised, so if you try a Bordeaux that you absolutely love, chances are there are other Bordeaux wines you’ll enjoy just as much, and it can become a bit of a safe bet with specific wines you’ve never before tried.
The bad thing about regional labelling is that it’s often difficult to know exactly what’s inside the bottle without doing a bit of your own research. But then again, if you know that Bordeaux tickles your fancy, you’re probably pretty good to go sticking to the same regional wines.

Labelling by name
Becoming more common, the last well-practised style of wine labelling is when wines are given an inventive, ‘fantasy’ name. More often than not, these particular wines are blends invented by the winemaker, and are occasionally unique blends in their own right. Why would they do this, you might wonder? This type of labelling became more common in regions that are strict on the use of specific grape varieties in their wines when it is labelled by region. For example, wines from Tuscany made with the French grapes of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet are not able to be labelled as Italian regional wines - in fact, doing so would be illegal. So, the winemakers? They got creative!
So, to you this means that these named wines are often blends or varieties unusual to a particular area, that don’t fit the appellation laws of the region in which they are grown. In most cases, you’ll find these details about the wine on the winery’s social media, website, and in most cases, on the bottle itself.

Cheers!

 

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