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Decoding the Language of Wine Labels: A Comprehensive Guide

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I’ve had a week off work since we last spoke (using up last year’s holiday before the new financial year) and very enjoyable it was too. Em and I cooked up a lot of foodie treats at home, including enough tapas to feed an ejército (that’s Spanish for army, see what I did there?), a spinach, ricotta and ham hock Lasagne and some haggis and sausage meat Scotch eggs. We also had a trip up to London, starting with the Seven Dials Food Court and finishing with an inevitable trip to Borough Market, to stock up on cheese, spices and other yummy stuff.

The highlight of the week though was on Tuesday.

As it was my birthday, Emma treated us to lunch at Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers in Marlow… wow!

It certainly lives up to its mission statement of -

"We’re proud to be the first pub with two Michelin stars. From the moment you arrive, we want you to have the ultimate Tom Kerridge experience; relaxed surroundings, welcoming staff and proper food which is unpretentious and massively bold in flavours."

Even Em’s Jerusalem Artichoke soup was delicious.

And I don’t like Jerusalem Artichokes!

As you can probably imagine, all this gastronomic gorgeousness was accompanied by a fair few bottles of wine, which got me thinking about wine bottle labels.

A number of you, in the survey of a few weeks ago, suggested that a “guide to deciphering wine labels” would be a good subject for one of my Saturday morning emails.

So here we go....

Actually.... before we start….

Most of us go to the same restaurant repeatedly but order different things off the menu. Or read different books from the same author. Or buy cookbooks written by the same chef and cook different recipes from it. Or go to see different movies simply because they star the same actor.

We all do this. Why? Because we feel that, if we like one thing from a certain person or source, it’s logical and comforting to assume we would like something else from that same source.

The same is often true for wine.

By some estimates there are over 2 million wineries in the world. And, whilst that may sound like a challenge, there is no way you can taste that many wines in order to find what you like.

That’s where importers and distributors come in. Distributors pay wine experts and sommeliers to go around the world, taste a lot of wine, and choose what wines they like and what wines they think you will like.

They then get them into your local wine shop, or supermarket for you to buy.

Just like a restaurant, chef, author, or actor, with a little effort it’s actually pretty easy to get a feel for what styles of wine certain distributors or importers like. You can get a feel for their taste.

This comes in especially handy when choosing wines from obscure wineries located in faraway lands.

If you are using the distributor or importer as a guide, then their details will often be found on the back label, near the bottom.

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So, what's on the label?
1. The Producer and Brand

The journey into understanding a wine label begins with identifying the producer or brand. This information is usually prominently displayed on the label, often in the largest, and boldest, lettering. Researching the producer's reputation can shed light on their commitment to quality and their overall winemaking philosophy.

Established wineries, with a rich history, may evoke a sense of tradition and craftsmanship, while newer or boutique producers might signify innovation and experimentation.

There may also be a memorable or fanciful name to attract a target demographic, for example, Apothic Red is a branded wine by E&J Gallo, the producer.

There are also a number of other common producer descriptions:

 Produced/made and bottled by:This indicates that the bottler fermented 75 percent or more of the wine at the stated address.
 Cellared and bottled by:This indicates that the bottler has subjected the wine to cellar treatment before bottling at the stated address.
 Bottled by: This indicates that though it was bottled at the stated address, it may have been grown, crushed, fermented, or aged elsewhere.

2. The Wine Type
Accompanying the producer's name is the wine's name itself. This can range from straightforward varietal names such as "Merlot" or "Chardonnay" to more fanciful titles like "Reserve" or "Grand Vin." Understanding the significance of the wine's name can provide clues about its style, quality, and production process. For example, terms like "Reserve" can indicate a higher quality wine made from select grapes or aged for an extended period.

Wines using variety names must derive at least 75% of their volume from that  grape, and the variety name must appear on the label with an appellation of origin (i.e., specific location where the grapes were grown).

Many blended wines include information about the grape varietals used on the label. For example, a label might indicate that the wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or that it is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. Understanding varietal composition can offer insights into the wine's flavour profile and structure. Different grape varieties contribute unique characteristics to the final blend, such as fruit flavours, acidity, and tannins.

Unfortunately, many bottles don’t show the varietal on the front label. For example, the French just assume you know that white Burgundy is almost certainly made from Chardonnay and red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir. You may get some help from the back label and New World wines are more likely to have more information than traditional European ones.

Although regulations vary, even if a wine is varietally labelled, it may contain up to 25%  of a different grape and producers often add a little bit of something else to balance the wine.

But they don’t have to tell you if they don’t want to.

3. Appellation of Origin
One of the most critical aspects of a wine label is the appellation of origin, which is a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes were grown.

This can be as broad as a country or as specific as a single vineyard. Appellations play a significant role in determining the wine's flavour profile, as terroir, factors such as climate, soil, and topography influence grape ripening and wine production. Familiarising yourself with wine-producing regions and their characteristics can help you anticipate the style of wine you're buying.

A good rule of thumb is that the more specific the location label, the more expensive the wine is likely to be and, hopefully, the better it will be. So, a Grand Cru wine from the prestigious Le Montrachet vineyard in Burgundy will be labelled ‘Le Montrachet’ and will command a far higher price than generic ‘Vin Blanc de Bourgogne’ blended from vineyards across the region.

Here’s another important tip. English wine, including some top notch sparkling wine, is made from grapes grown in England. British wine is a low-price product fermented in the UK from imported concentrated grape must.

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4. Vintage Year
The vintage year represents the year in which the grapes were harvested to make the wine. This information is crucial because climatic conditions vary from year to year, impacting grape ripening and wine quality.

In general, warmer growing seasons tend to produce riper, more full-bodied wines, while cooler years may result in lighter, more delicate wines. However, it's essential to note that not all wines display a vintage year. Non-vintage wines are blends of grapes from multiple years and typically produce a more consistent taste.

Whatever you’re drinking, the vintage date can help you decide how much ageing the bottle has had. Non-vintage wines are usually ready for drinking on release and are generally unlikely to improve with age.

In some cases, like Rioja, words like ‘Riserva’ and ‘Gran Riserva’ have protected meanings and indicate longer ageing. But in most cases, adding the word ‘Reserve’ on the label is just marketing.

5. Fanciful Name
More marketing, to target specific consumers. But they do help you to identify them when chatting with friends. Or even in the wine shop.

6. Designations and Certifications
Some wine labels feature designations or certifications that indicate specific production methods or quality standards. For example, terms like "Organic," "Biodynamic," or "Sustainable" denote environmentally friendly farming practices.

Additionally, certain regions have appellation-specific designations, such as "DOC" (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) in Italy or "AOC" (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) in France, which guarantee adherence to strict regulations regarding grape growing and winemaking.

7. Vineyard Designation
A vineyard designation on a wine label means that at least 95% of the grapes come from that one single vineyard. This might be the same as the brand highlighted on the label, but it’s not always the case with the larger wine brands.

It’s also sometimes used as a suggestion from a winemaker that you’re about to pick up a higher-quality wine. Vineyard designations have to be official. That means if you look up a map of vineyards in a particular wine-growing region, you’ll find that specific vineyard designation.

8. Estate Bottled
If a wine is made from grapes grown in a vineyard owned or controlled by that winery, you may see “estate grown,” “estate bottled,” or “ grown, produced, and bottled by” on the label.

This means the winery has control over every step of the winemaking process.

9. Alcohol Content
The alcohol content of a wine is expressed as a percentage by volume and is always displayed on the label. This figure provides an indication of the wine's richness and body, as higher alcohol levels tend to result in more full-bodied wines. However, it's essential to remember that alcohol content alone does not determine a wine's quality or style, as other factors such as acidity, sweetness, and tannins also play significant roles.

Red wines hover around 13.5 percent on average, with white wines a little lower. You’ll usually find the percentage in a fine print at the bottom of the front or back label.

Legally, they don’t have to be more accurate than 0.5 percent one way or another.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with a wine that has a high 15.5 percent ABV, even though the fashion is now for more moderate levels of alcohol, providing it is in balance with the acidity and fruit in the wine.

However, a high level of alcohol could result in a jammier, flabbier wine.

In some regions there’s a maximum ABV limit, for example in warmer climates where grapes ripen quickly. The limit is designed to force producers to retain some acidity and balance.

In other areas, there’s a minimum ABV limit, for example for some cooler region white wines, like a Smaragd Riesling from Wachau, in Northern Austria, and the intention there is to avoid excessive acidity.

Not too hot and jammy, not to cold and acidic; just right!

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 The Back Label 
Tasting Notes and Awards

Finally, many wine labels include tasting notes or awards garnered by the wine, often on the back label. Tasting notes provide a brief description of the wine's aroma, flavour, and texture, offering valuable insights into what to expect from it, often with some food pairing tips. 

Awards and accolades, such as medals from wine competitions or ratings from wine critics, can also help guide buying decisions by highlighting the wine's quality and pedigree.

What May Not Be On The Label
The back label will contain much of what is on the front, along with additional information, such as producers may tell you if egg or dairy products have been used for fining the wine, to make it clearer and brighter.

But they don’t have to.

Similarly, they don’t have to say anything about their farming methods. If a wine is labelled as organic or biodynamic, then it must meet those requirements, but cheap plonk is often the result of very intensive farming methods.

There is no requirement to tell you anything about the other ingredients in the wine – for example the purple dye or oak chips that some low-cost producers use as colouring.

What yeast was used in the fermentation? Who knows!

Nor is there any requirement to tell you anything about how the wine was made. Was it fermented in a concrete tank from the 1970’s or in expensive new French oak barrels?

You may never know (although, most producers would probably shout about “expensive new French oak barrels.”)

The Producers Personality
Back labels, especially on New World wines, can also include some, often quite amusing, notes from the producer.

A couple of personal favourites are this one from Adams County Winery in Pennsylvania

“This wine has a very tasty taste. The color is somewhat white, but not white like glue or paper. Pairs good-ish with various foods. Hints of other stuff can be tasted, such as the glorious taste of the time you walk through your child’s room without stepping on a Lego. Most people say stuff like “Ahhhh, this is delicious!” or “which wine did you say this was?” Open before serving. Save the cork for that cool art project you saw on Pinterest and will never do.”

And this one from The Soggy Bottom Boys 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.

“Do not let this bottle serve as an inspiration to call your ex in a pathetic attempt to get back together. Some very fine grapes have died in the making of this wine. Show some respect.”

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So there you have it, deciphering a wine label is a skill that can enhance your wine-buying experience and deepen your appreciation for the world of wine.

By understanding the key elements of a label—from the producer and brand to the appellation of origin and varietal composition—you can make more informed choices, discover new and exciting wines to enjoy and waste less money on stuff you don't like.

So, next time you're perusing the wine aisle, armed with this knowledge, approach those labels with confidence and curiosity, and let the adventure begin!

Stay safe and be kind to each other.

  Andi Healey
The Riedel Shop Web Manager

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