How to Decode Wine Labels Like a Pro

October 22, 2021

How to Decode Wine Labels Like a Pro

No matter what stage you’re in on your wine journey, buying wine can be a daunting task. Especially here in the Philippines where due to a lack of training, not all staff in grocery stores will know the specifics about the wines on the shelves. Although wines have labels, they either tell you too much to understand for the uninitiated or too little for true wine lovers. So for those looking to learn how to decipher wine labels themselves, here are our expert tips. 

The first thing to note however, is every region and every winery does things differently. Some will highlight the variety, others will highlight the region or appellation the grapes were grown in. The reason for this? Wine is a local expression, rooted in tradition. While it can make things confusing for some, we think this is also the beauty of wine. With that being said, there are some things that are easy to pinpoint: the name of the producer, where the grapes were grown, and the vintage. 

Yet even with these there are exceptions. Not all wines are vintage wines — that is, not all wines are made from grapes harvested in the same year — take Champagne as an example. Likewise, if it is a vintage wine, the year may be on the neck of the bottle or on the back label. Why? It saves the winery from having to reprint new labels every year. 

Nevertheless, below we’ll go into the key things to look out for on wine labels as well as some of the differences between Old World and New World wines. 

The Basics of Wine Labels

Despite all the differences, which we’ll go into more detail below, there are only a handful of basic points you need to know on any wine label. 

how to read a french wine label

The Winery

This is usually the easiest to spot on wine labels, but not always the most important (unless you’re looking for a specific wine maker). New World wine labels make these obvious. Think of names like Yellow Tail, Barefoot, or 19 Crimes — their names are prominently displayed on the label. However, with Old World labels it might take some deciphering as they often emphasize the region rather than the producer (more on this below). 

Appellation

This is where the wine was made. If you see either Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) or Denominazione della Origine Controllata (DOC) on the label, these indicate that the wines were grown in legally regulated areas of wine production. 

Varietal Name

If the wine was made from one specific grape, New World wine labels will prominently show what it is. It’s worth noting however that this doesn’t always mean that 100% of the wine is made from this varietal — in the US for instance, only 75% of the wine has to come from the listed varietal and the rest will be a blend of other grape/s. If it’s an Old World wine label, then you may not see the varietal at all. 

Alcohol Percentage

The alcohol percentage or ABV will either be on the front or on the back of the wine label. Unlike beer, wine must always have the ABV printed on the label. European wine regions have regulations that only allow the highest quality wines to have a 13.5% ABV and above. However, in the US, ABV’s can be quite high and this often indicates the wine was made from riper grapes and will have a more fruit-forward profile. 

Sweetness

Sweetness refers to the amount of residual sugar that is left in the wine after fermentation. This is most often indicated by, in order of least sweet to most, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux. Some New World Rieslings however may keep it simple by indicating either Dry, Semi-Dry, Semi-Sweet, or Sweet. German and Austrian wines can be a little more complicated, if you don’t know the language, but go from Kabinett to Eiswein in scale. 

But if you want to go into more specifics, it’s best to first determine whether the wine is from the Old World (Europe, parts of Western Asia, and Mediterranean) or New World (any other region) then work from there. 

Old World Wine Labels

The tricky part about Old World labels is that they’ll typically only indicate the regions and aging classifications, but not the grape varieties. This is because there is an emphasis on regional style versus what grapes were used: the same grape can produce different flavor profiles based on the terroir it was grown in. 

Essentially this means you’re expected to know what grapes they are based on the regions labelled. Rioja for example often uses Tempranillo grapes, however they can also use Graciano, Garnacha, or Mazuelo (which is in fact the name for Carignan in Rioja). Chianti is most often made with Sangiovese, whilst Burgundy uses Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white wines. 

Another element of Old World labels is the guidelines on aging. You might see words like “Reserva”, “Riserva”, or “Gran Riserva”, which indicate how long the wine has been aged before being released for sale. However, the regulations for these classifications differ per region. In Rioja, “Reserva” means the wine has been aged for a minimum of 36 months, with at least 12 months in oak. In Chianti however, “Riserva” means the wine has spent at least 24 months in oak and another 3 months in the bottle. 

Then we have German wines, which use technical German-language terminology. However, there are a few tricks and tips to make it easier. For instance, if you see two names together, particularly if the first ends in “er”. it denotes a subregion and vineyard. An example is Bernkasteler Badstube. This tells you the wine is from Badstube vineyard in the Bernkastel subregion. 

German wine labels also include ripeness levels that indicate the sweetness level of the wine. These will range from Kabinett (least ripe) to Trockenbeerenauslese (ripest) and Eiswein (a dessert wine in which the grapes have frozen on the vine). German wines also have their own version of Crus: Grosses Gewachs, or great growth. A wine will be of the highest quality if it has Grosses Lage (Grand Cru) and Erstes Lage (Premier Cru) on the label. 

sweetness levels of german wine

New World Wine Labels

New World wine labels are easier to decipher as the grape variety is almost always on the label. This is because the style of the wine focused more on the grape’s expression rather than the region the grape was grown. Why the difference? Because, unlike their Old World counterparts, New World wines didn’t have the same recognition. However, many non-European regions today are in fact home to some of the finest vineyards in the world. 

Nevertheless, with a bottle of New World wine you should expect to see the varietal, the region, the subregion, and even descriptions of the aromas and flavors on the label. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance you may come across Rhône-style blends or Super Tuscans. Here you’ll be expected to know grapes used in historic European regions. If it’s a Rôone-style red blend from California for instance, this will likely be a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. 

Another exception is the use of “Reserve”, “Special”, or “Selection” on the bottle. Often with New World wines there are no regulatory minimums for a winemaker to place these terms on their bottles. Essentially, these are a marketing technique used to imply a high-quality bottling. 

What’s Not On The Label

Despite the world of information that you can come across on a wine label, there are some things that winemakers don’t have to include. For example the use of eggs or dairy products — used to fine the wine to make them clearer and brighter — doesn’t have to be declared on a wine label. Similarly, the use of sulfites to reduce risk of bacterial infection and oxidation doesn’t have to be mentioned either — unless they exceed 10mg/litre.  

Another example of what’s not on the label is specifics in terms of region. A wine label that mentions a larger region versus a specific vineyard will often be a value wine. For example California versus Spring Mountain (a vineyard within Napa Valley in California). Generally, as you narrow the source to a specific site the quality level will be more refined and as such the price increases. 

As you can see, there’s a lot of information you can get from a wine label. It takes some practice, and some mastery of European wine terms, but anyone can do it. Of course, if all else fails, our product descriptions include all of the details to help you buy with confidence and when in doubt, we’re just a message or email away. 

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