Wine Basics

Demystifying the Wine Label

from The Wine Lover's Companion

The information on a wine label can provide the consumer with pertinent details about the wine in the bottle. Unfortunately, some foreign wine labels can be extremely confusing. In the United States, however, certain label information is required, even for imported wines (on which the data must be in English). The following information should bolster your wine label knowledge and help decipher even the most complicated label.
Label Information For Wines Sold In The United States
Brand Name: The brand name a name used by the producer to identify the wine. Almost any brand name is acceptable except for those that mislead the consumer. In many cases the brand name is the actual name of the winery, producer, or bottler.
A brand name might also be a made up name used to identify a particular quality level of wines from a large winery or a second label of a small or medium-sized producer. Liberty School from Caymus Vineyards and Hawk Crest from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars are examples of second labels.
It may also be a name created specifically by a winery for a retailer or restaurant. For example, Bronco Wine Company produces Charles Shaw wines for California’s Trader Joe’s chain of markets.
Proprietary brand names are sometimes used for high-quality wine that doesn’t meet the criteria to be labeled as a varietal wine. For example, Insignia (by Joseph Phelps Vineyards) is so named because it’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Because it doesn’t contain 75 percent of one grape variety, it cannot (in the United States) be named after any grape variety.
Name of the Producer: The producer’s name is often the most important information on the label. That’s because some producers have a reputation for producing high-quality wines year after year, whereas others have sporadic or less than stellar records.
For example, a single Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy can have numerous producers, with some making consistently higher-quality wine than others. The producer’s name can be the name of a winery (in countries like the United States and Australia), of a Château (in some parts of France, like Bordeaux), of a Domaine in other French areas like Burgundy, and of wine estates in Italy, Spain, and Germany. The exact name of the producer is important because in areas like France and Germany, there are a number of producers with the same surname. Therefore, knowledge of both Christian name and surname is necessary to differentiate producers. For instance, the name of the Prüm family is attached to numerous wine estates in Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, the best known of which is Joh. Jos. Prüm.
Name and Address of the Bottler: The bottler is often the same as the producer, but occasionally a company other than the producer actually bottles the wine. In such a case the label would read something like: “Bottled for ABC Winery by XYZ Company.” A label that says “Estate Bottled” means the wine was bottled by the producer.
Name of the Importer: When wines are brought into the United States, an importer handles the arrangements for shipping and storing the wines until they reach the next level in the U.S. distribution system.
Name of the Shipper: If a company other than the importer handles the shipping, that organization’s name is also listed on the label.
Alcohol Content: The United States requires that alcohol by volume information be included on wine labels. For table wine, the U.S. requirement is a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent, a maximum of 14 percent. The label variance can be up to 1.5 percent. For example, a wine label stating “Alcohol 12.5% By Volume” can legally range anywhere from 11 to 14 percent. However, wines cannot exceed the upper or lower limit. The alcohol-by-volume range for sherries is 17 to 20 percent and for PORTS 18 to 20 percent; both have a label variance of 1 percent.
Volume of the Bottle’s Contents: The volume figure, such as 750 ml (milliliters) or 1.5 l (liters), is sometimes molded into the bottle glass rather than printed on the label. Therefore, if the label doesn’t designate the bottle size, look along the base of the bottle for the indication.
Country of Origin: This tells you the country where the wine was produced. However, depending on that country’s laws, it may not necessarily be where all the grapes were grown.
Sulfite Advisory: The words “Contains Sulfites” indicate that Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)--a colorless, water-soluble, nonflammable gas--was used somewhere in the grape-growing or winemaking process and that the resulting wine contains 10 ppm or more of sulfites, which can cause severe allergic reactions in certain individuals.
Government Warning: A caveat required on all alcoholic beverages containing 0.5% or more alcohol by volume. It warns that drinking alcoholic beverages can cause birth defects, impair ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and cause health problems.
Quality of the Wine: A wine’s quality is often implied by the rating it receives in the producing country’s appellation system. For example, at the lowest level of Italy’s quality ranking are the Vino Da Tavola wines, followed by Vino Tipico, Denominazione Di Origine Controllata (DOC), and the highest level, Denominazione Di Origine Controllata E Garantita (DOCG). Although choosing an Italian DOCG wine doesn’t always mean it will be better than those of lesser rankings, it usually indicates a wine of high quality.
Vintage of the Wine: The year indicated on a wine label is the vintage, or the year the grapes were harvested. In the United States, a wine label may only list the vintage if 95 percent of the wine comes from grapes harvested that year. If a blend of grapes from two or more years is used, the wine is either labeled “non-vintage” (NV) or there’s no date mentioned.
Type of Wine: This information is typically very general, usually in the form of basic terms like “red table wine,” “dry red wine,” “white wine,” “still white wine,” or “sparkling wine.” Such terms simply place the wine in a generic category. Don’t assume, however, that because a wine is described as, say, a “red table wine” that it’s simple or mediocre. In the United States, for example, unless a wine contains at least 75 percent of a particular grape variety, it cannot use the grape’s name on the label. As an example, for its premium red wine Cain Five (a blend of the five Bordeaux grape varieties--Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot), Cain Cellars simply calls it “red table wine.” The name of a grape variety may be used as the type of wine if that variety is on the approved variety list of the Tax And Trade Bureau.
Appellation or Growing Region: As mentioned previously under “Name of the Wine,” the actual growing area or appellation becomes the name of many European wines. In other areas like the United States and Australia, where the wine is more often named for the grape variety, some producers also list the growing region (particularly if it’s prestigious) on the label. The Napa Valley in the United States and the Hunter Valley in Australia are examples of such well known growing regions. In the United States, where such growing regions are called American Viticultural Areas (AVA), at least 85 percent of the grapes must come from a single AVA for the region’s name to be used on the label. If a grape variety is listed on the label, the appellation must also be listed.
Varietal Designations: A wine that uses the name of a single variety on the label (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, or Zinfandel) must contain at least 75 percent of that variety. The one exception is if a Vitis Labrusca variety such as Concord or Catawba is used, in which case the wine must contain at least 51 percent of that variety. If a label lists two or more varieties, all the grapes used must be of those varieties, which must be listed in dominant order. A label that includes a varietal designation must also list the appellation or growing region.
Descriptive Information: Occasionally, wine labels include descriptive words or phrases designed to give the consumer added information. For example, a label might indicate the wine was barrel-fermented, a process thought to imbue a wine with rich, creamy flavors, delicate oak characteristics, and better aging capabilities. Many terms, however, are simply marketing jargon with no legal or standard usage.

© Copyright Barron's Educational Services, Inc.
by Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Tags: wine label, brand name, producer, address, shipper, alcohol content, volume, country, sulfite advisory, government warning, quality of the wine, vintage, type of wine, appellation, growing region, varietal designations, descriptive information

blog comments powered by Disqus