Wine labels can be pretty confusing to read if you don't know what everything means. It gets even more frustrating when you discover that wine labels are not universally structured and that different countries will have very different looking labels. Instead of staring at the bottle for twenty minutes, afraid to show your lack of knowledge while blocking the aisle of your favorite wine merchant, check this simple reference guide out so you can get through that store quicker. The sooner you buy it, the sooner you can drink it.
Wine labels have a ton of information, including the name of the vineyard and the winemaker, where the wine was bottled and whether or not it was made from old vines. Napa Valley Vintners, a regional trade group in California, founded in 1944 with over 350 wineries as members, says the vintage is optional, which states the year that the grapes were harvested.
According to Will Lyons, who has been writing a weekly wine column for The Wall Street Journal since 2009, most wines are bottled to be enjoyed within five years of the vintage date. If you have fine wine on your hands though, you can cellar those bottles for up to 20 years to get more mature, complex flavors.
The wine type, Chardonnay for example, is the kind of grape or varietal. In the U.S., wines using varietal names have to feature at least 75 percent of the volume from the specific grape. NVV asserts that just because something may be 100 percent varietal doesn't necessarily mean that it is the best. Oftentimes the blending of different varietals is where the art comes in.
The vineyard tells you where the grapes were grown, which may be a winery or an independent grower. In the U.S., policy requires that 95 percent of the grapes have to be grown in the vineyard named on the bottle, says NVV. (Photo Credit Jochen Sand | Photodisc | Thinkstock)
Lyons says that European wines use the location as a way to describe taste, style, and character of the wine, not the grape. He assures that you can pretty much count on the high quality being determined by how specific the location is. If you have the choice between a standard Bordeaux and one that lists Saint-Émilion on the label, go with the latter because it implies a specific village outside of Bordeaux.
The producer and bottler give you a lot of information, says NVV. "Produced and bottled by" means that whoever bottled it fermented at least 75 percent of the wine. If you pair that with other info, like the vineyard, you can reap a lot of details about the origin and producer. If the bottle says "cellared and bottled by" it means that the wine was cellared before bottling, which ages it. "Made and bottled by" means that the bottler fermented 75 percent or more of the wine - but watch out because if the vintage is prior to 1994, it could mean only 10 percent was fermented by the bottler. "Bottled by" just means that the winery listed did the bottling and that the actual creation (growth, crushing, finished, aging, etc.) was done elsewhere. (Photo Courtesy of Hemera | Thinkstock)
The alcohol percentage can be found on the bottom right corner of the label and the rules can change depending on the country it was bottled in. According to Lyons, there's a 0.05 percent allowance for European wines so take note that if a bottle says it's 14 percent, it may actually be 14.5. NVV says the in the U.S. there's a wider tolerance of 1.5 percent (plus or minus). This changes though if the wine has more than 14 percent alcohol in it, in which case they are allowed a margin of one percent.
If your label uses the term "estate bottled," it indicates that the winery grew all of the grapes on its own land and that the process was continuous. It basically means that the grapes were grown, crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled one after the other in the same location. (Photo Credit Martin Poole | Photodisc | Thinkstock)
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