Wine Labels Explained...
One of the most baffling subjects that confront the budding wine enthusiast is the deciphering of information contained on the bottle label, especially that contained on wine bottles from European countries. It is important to note that a good wine label does not always mean the wine will be the best. The main features included on each label can vary massively, from European to American wines, from region to region or even just by each individual vineyard. Once the basic rules are taken on board it becomes a lot simpler. Whereas most New World countries put details of the grape varieties on the front label, a lot of European regions do not. This is the most basic of information for taste purposes. Why is this the case?
Did you know European winemakers tend to put more emphasis on the place of origin? For instance, a Bordeaux red typically would not say Cabernet or Merlot on the front label, but instead, have the name of the chateau where it was made, and usually the part of Bordeaux where it was made, for example, Haut-Medoc. Similarly, a Sancerre is totally Sauvignon Blanc, but an in-depth analysis of the label will leave you none the wiser. For the French, the important factor is that the wine comes from Sancerre in the Loire valley and for them, it is inbred knowledge that white Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc.
Moving south to Spain, red Rioja declares itself as Rioja on the label, not Tempranillo the grape variety used, whilst in Italy, most Tuscan reds have no information on the Sangiovese grape that is most widely used in these wines. Given this mish-mash of information, it is no wonder that many of us head for that bottle with the label announcing it is a Chardonnay Viognier from the Ironstone Vineyard of California.
It is clear then that the Europeans believe the most important factor influencing a wine ís character is the soil, climate and culture of the area where the grape is grown and this is particularly important to single-vineyard wines who make the most of capturing the essence of a particular area of land. So whereas a French winemaker will see his wine as reflecting the character of a particular region, a New World winemaker mad about grape varieties will consider that soil is just the growing medium in which the fruit grows, and that the grape variety and hard work in the winery are what really counts. Today these two opposing approaches to wine labelling are moving closer together with New World producers emphasising their regionality and its characteristics, whilst European, even the parochial French winemakers possibly prompted by the wholesalers and the supermarkets are labelling their wines more clearly.
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 should not require much effort.
What Do The Labels Mean?
You may remember the old adage ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’, but is the same true about a bottle of wine? Can you judge a wine by its label? There is a lot of information in the label of a bottle of wine, and if you aren’t a connoisseur of wine it can be a little overwhelming at first glance. The majority of wine labels are quite similar though, containing information on the winery where the wine was made, the ‘appellation’ (the country or region where the grapes that went into the wine were grown), the variety (the type of grapes the wine was made from) and the vintage (the year when the grapes were harvested). The strength/alcohol content of the wine is also displayed on the label.
Some extra information may appear depending on the country in which the wine was bottled. As an example, wines bottled in the USA are required to have the name and address of the bottler displayed on the label, along with certain consumer warnings. There are also sometimes some details on the ripeness of the grapes, and information about the winery that produced the wine.
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.When looking for who made the wine, famous brand names will of course stand out straight away and be easy to spot. But some wines are actually named after the producer, which is when you see the château and estate appearing in the product name. For smaller or lesser known winemakers, the most prominent wording on the label may actually be the grape variety or region, with the producer name in small print.
This specifies the grapes used to make the wine. Again this can be as broad as ìRed 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 per cent of the wine is the content must be from the named varietals, while in some parts of the United States this figure is much lower at about 75 per cent.
Most wines will carry the vintage somewhere on the bottle, although this is not a mandatory requirement and will not be on all bottles. Vintage is the year that the grapes used were harvested. Most wine-producing countries have laws that require at least 85 per cent 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 per cent.
If you don’t see a vintage shown on a label, it means that it’s a non-vintage wine. These wines cannot have a vintage/year stated on their label as they have been made by blending grapes harvested at different times in order to control the flavour. NV wines are usually lower value wines or produced by huge brands where it is important to keep the flavour of their product consistent, rather than unique to a specific year.
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 ìestate bottledî and the label will state this using Mise en bouteille(s) au Château (French), Gutsabfüllung/Erzeugerabfüllung (German) or simply Estate Bottled.
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 appellation classification, which is why like the vintage; at least 85 per cent of the grapes used must be from their specified region.
What Else Appears on Wine Labels?
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 Amtliche Pr¸ fungs 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.
What once was just used to mark what was in the bottle, wine labels have become a spot to showcase artwork and make for a unique collection for a wine lover. While they may seem like an odd collection, the artwork on wine labels can be extremely beautiful, and a label may remind you of a special trip or an important event where you enjoyed the wine. And wine labels are certainly easier to save and display than empty bottles! Collecting wine labels has become so popular that manufacturers have even developed special cases to display them, and wine labels actually have their own category on eBay! Avid collectors often have their own websites or blogs devoted to sharing their collection with others.
Customise a Label For a Special Occasion?
If you are planning a special celebration perhaps a wedding, anniversary celebration, or even just a really fancy company party, then you could take advantage of companies that allow you to turn a piece of your own artwork into a wine label. You could put pretty much anything you wanted on the label. For example, a photograph of the couple getting married, your company logo, or some other design of significance to the recipient. After the wine has been drunk, it is likely the bottle will remain displayed in pride of place for a long time to come!