DECODING WINE LABELS
By Elias Fernandez
Recently I happened through the wine aisle of a large grocery store where I passed several shoppers staring numbly at hundreds of bottles in a state of what I call wine-label-torment. You probably recognize this – the sagging shoulders, the look of distress, shame and bewilderment.
I’m sorry to say that the arcane and vague wording on wine labels often keeps people at arms length from its enjoyment. For that reason a quick decoding of the more mystifying label jargon is worthwhile. That includes the verbiage that talks about what’s in the bottle, where the grapes were grown, and something about how the wine was produced.
What’s in the bottle?
When you spot a grape name on the bottle, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay, 75 percent of the wine inside must come from that variety. You may also find terms such as “red table wine,” Meritage or “proprietary red,” which tend to be a blend of two or more grape varietals.
Where were the grapes grown?
As for grape source, a label may disclose anything from a huge, vague appellation of origin, such as California or Washington, to something as specific as a one-acre vineyard behind someone’s house.
When you read that the grapes where produced in, say, California this means that at least 75 percent of the grapes came from somewhere in that region.
More specific names include legally-defined appellations such as Napa Valley. Even more tightly focused are sub-appellations such as Stags Leap District or Carneros, which are small parcels of Napa Valley that have been officially recognized as offering their own distinct characteristics. When labeled with one of these tiny appellations at least 85 percent of the grapes must come from the named location.
Finally, there are single vineyard designate wines. When you find a single vineyard wine, it means that at least 95 percent of the fruit came from just one site.
How was the wine produced?
A few clues as to style and quality are encoded in phrases such as, “vinted and bottled by” or “cellared and bottled by.” In most cases, this means that a company has purchased already-finished wine, shipped it to their bottling plant, put the wine in bottles and slapped on a label. For the cost-conscious consumer, this kind of wine can offer a good option.
For those looking for more unique characteristics and in some cases better quality watch for terms such as “estate grown, produced and bottled.” This means the winery did everything – grew and harvested the grapes, made the wine, cellared and bottled it. Another good option is “produced and bottled by.” This means that some portion of the grapes used were purchased, then crushed, cellared and bottled by the winery. This wine can come with a lower price tag and still be quite delicious.
What a wine label won’t tell you is how it tastes or whether you’ll like it. Your best course is to keep an open mind and to have fun exploring, even when uncorking lesser bottles. There’s an old saying that applies to both love and wine, “Before you find your prince, you have to kiss a lot of toads.”