How to Read A Wine Label to Get What You Actually Want
Learn the terminology, find awesome new wines you’ll love.
Wine aisles can be a chaotic storm, often confusing happy shoppers and clouding their thoughts with flashy labels and an overload of bottles in one place. A great wine shop, like Edmund’s Oast Exchange in Charleston, South Carolina, makes a world of a difference when it comes to education, as wines are grouped together by region and also by grape varietals.
However, when shopping in supermarkets and larger retail stores where organization and education isn’t top of mind, knowing how to read a label can drastically help you find a wine that’s right for you.“A good back label design can hold a lot of valuable information on the grape(s), blend, fermentation practices, cellaring and chemistry of a wine—feeds the (cork dorks) geeks who love data,” says Adam Sager, Co-President of Winesellers, Ltd. “Producers shouldn’t hide behind the notion that vineyard information is proprietary,” he adds. “Unless a winery is making vast quantities of wine from dozens of growers, stating the vineyard the grapes came from can be a fantastic tool for wine lovers looking to learn more.”
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Beyond seeking a red wine, white wine, rosé and bubbles, you can really start to pick and choose bottles based on preferred characteristics. A dry Riesling from Germany; a juicy, meaty Cab from Napa; a plush red, fruity Rioja from Spain—and from there, start relationships with individual winemakers. It’s easy to stick to the tried and true favorites, but there are so many fun bottles out there so… study up with notes from a couple of our knowledgeable wine experts below, have fun, and explore!
What A Wine Label Can Tell You
I always love trying new wines but it can be challenging taking a risk on a new bottle. I totally get it, but thankfully the front and back label hold a bevy of helpful information when it comes to choosing something your palate will enjoy. “The back label will often show sensory characteristics (aroma, taste, and color), winery background information, and sometimes food pairings,” says Sager. “The back labels of the wine bottle are the most effective ways to influence consumer choice besides with the packaging,” he adds. “The producer name is either obvious in large font or in small text at the top or the bottom of the label — it depends on the region and origin of the wine.”
Old World vs. New World
This isn’t just a fancy term that sommeliers toss around but more so a geographic term. Old world wines are wines produced in countries such as France, Spain, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, and Germany—countries where winemaking originated from. Old world wines typically have a lengthy history and strict guidelines of how the wine is made. Some of the most standout old world wines are Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Rioja, and Chianti.
New world wines stem from new world regions like the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Chile, and Argentina—basically everything that’s not considered old world. These include wines like big and bold Napa Cabs, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Tip: new world wines are often fuller bodied and contain higher alcohol content.
This refers to the American Viticultural Area and, in a nutshell, tells you where grapes come from. “A wine from a larger region is typically a value wine whereas a wine from a specific vineyard site often indicates a higher quality regional designation (i.e. California vs. Santa Lucia Highlands AVA),” says Sager—noting that the more specific the AVA gets the more expensive the bottle. “For example, Zuccardi Valle de Uco Parage Altamira—that’s the Altamira vineyard within the the Uco Valley appellation within Mendoza, Argentina.”
The Trio of Letters on a Label
Stickers or labels with a trio of letters like PDO, DOC, AOP and so on are quality contol restrictions. Each country has its own version. “These can be an indicator of quality but do not guarantee it,” says Chris Tanghe, Master Sommelier and Chief Instructor at GuildSomm.com. In other words don’t get too caught up on these markers. “Recent trends are also bottling under a very generic and loose category for creative freedom in the production process such as Vin de France”—a designation for French table wine.
A Vintage Means a Year—But Each Vintage is Completely Different
You’ll hear winemakers, sommeliers and fancy wine drinkers drop the term vintage often. This is referring to the year the grapes were harvested for said bottle. “Each vintage is truly a different bottle of wine,” notes Sager. “Don’t expect the 2015 Tortoise Creek Merlot to taste the same as the 2016 Tortoise Creek Merlot,” he says, noting that non vinttage (NV) wines or multi-vintage wines are lower in value due pulling from multiple vintages to control the flavor. You probably won’t galavante around your household talking about what vintage you’re drinking to your friends, but it’s beneficial to look for the year on the bottle when seeking a more quality wine.
“Areas that struggle with moisture, pressure, and/or cold are ones to watch out for in terms of shifts in quality from vintage to vintage such as Bordeaux, Loire, and Burgundy,” stays Tanghe. “Warmer areas are typically more reliable, but any good producer can still make good wine in a tough vintage.”
When You Know What a Vintage is, Try a Vertical Tasting
This is a fun term to drop and a fun activity to do with friends. A vertical is when you line up several different vintages of the same wine and taste side by side. It’s a great way to truly see how unique each year can be in terms of grapes and how different one year can taste from another. From there you can start to learn about good years and bad years for wine in specific regions—solely based on wines you’re into.
ABV (Alchol by Volume) is a Key Factor When Buying Wine
When buying wine defintely keep the ABV (Alcohol by Volume) in mind. “In America, ABVs can be quite high (up to 17% on some wines) and the alcohol level is an indication of how rich/big the wine may taste,” says Sager. “Many higher alcohol wines are made from riper grapes and tend to have more fruit forward flavors,” he adds. But there are certain exceptions like Grenache, Zinfandel and Amarone, which Tanghe notes having different growing cycles and are naturally higher in ABV. “You won't be even thinking about alcohol when you drink them though because they carry it so well and it gives them great texture,” he adds. If seeking something lighter and easier to drink, you now know to seek a wine with a lower AVB. “One great time to look at the ABV is when you're buying German Riesling and are unsure if it will have residual sugar or not—10% and below will definitely have a slight sweetness to it,” Tanghe notes.
Don’t Get Caught Up on Sulfites
“This is another buzz word in the wine media these days and is way overblown,” says Tanghe. There’s lots of banter on avoiding sulfites when it comes to wine, but Tanghe notes the amount of sulphur used in winemaking is minimal but crucial in protecting it from spoiling, oxidizing, and much more. “It ensures that the wine is in top form when you open it, and keeps it brighter and fresher for longer,” he adds. “Remember that wine is an agricultural product that needs to be treated like other delicate produce.” And while many people claim sulfites give them headaches, well, that’s just the alcohol in general—so don’t blame the sulfites after consuming an entire bottle of wine!
"Brut" Basically Means Sugar
Many think brut means a type of bubbly but the term is actually just referring to the amount of sugar added to sparkling wine, which helps balance acid. “The wine will still taste dry because the acid diminishes the perception of sugar and vice versa,” says Tanghe. “The amount of sugar is tiny and is really necessary to create a delicious balance on the palate, so don't let a little sugar scare you,” he adds. When shopping for bubbles, a Brut Champagne simply means it’s a drier style wine with A LITTLE SUGAR... “Anything labeled Demi-sec or doux will be sweet, however.” And as stated in our sparkling wines that aren’t Champagne guide, low or no dosage equals wines containing 3 grams or less of sugar per liter. On labels, skim for Brut Nature, Brut Zero, and Low -or No-dosage.
Reserve Wines = Aged Wines
“The wine will have seen more aging before the producer released it, and will show more savory and exotic character on the nose and palate,” says Tanghe. “Younger wines show more fruit while older wines offer a much broader spectrum of organoleptic diversity.” Most winemakers hold on to reserve bottles vs. seling immediately, therefore holding a higher price tag. Some producers use the term as label trickery but for reputable winemakers and wineries reserve wines are a way to showcase their best product.
Document Your Wine Labels
Keep track of what you drink and always snap a pic of labels for future reference. “Take pictures of labels of wines that you like so that you can use those while talking to a sommelier to help them find a new wine that you'll like,” says Tenghe. This will help you step outside the box and try new producers and even new wines you’ve never experienced.