Decoding the wine label
By Henry Klein III
Can you judge a wine by its label? Well, perhaps not entirely, however the label does provide a great deal of information about the wine. Label reading requires some knowledge as requirements vary significantly from country to country.
United States requirements:
Brand – May include owner’s name, winery name, growing area, appellation where wine originated and grape variety or trademark name.
Class – All wine labels must identify their contents as being one of nine classes. The most common being Class 1, or table wine, which in the US simply means a wine whose alcohol content is between 7% -14% (please note that the term “table wine” on European labels is used to refer to a lower ranking wine, a distinct difference than the US definition).
Alcohol content – Alcohol content must be listed on wines containing more than 14% alcohol by volume. Wines in this instance are considered fortified and taxed at a higher rate. Wines containing 14% or less may either list the alcohol content or they may use the designation “table wine” or “light wine” which implies an alcohol content range of 7-14%.
Name and location of bottler – The name and address of the bottler must appear on the label of all American wines preceded by the words “bottled by”. The words “produced and bottled by” may be used if the winery made at least 75% of the wine.
“Made and bottled by” is used if the winery fermented and clarified a minimum of 10% of the wine or if the winery changed the class of the wine.
“Cellared”, “vinted,” or “prepared” means the named winery subjected the wine to any cellar treatment specified in the regulations at that location, i.e. barrel aging.
“Blended and bottled by” means the winery mixed the wine with another wine of the same class and type at that location. Blending simply means mixing together two or more individual lots of wine, usually from different grape varieties. However, it may apply to wines from different vineyards, regions or vintages as well, i.e. blending together Cabernet and Merlot.
Net contents – Expressed in milliliters with the standard wine bottle being 750ml. May be molded into the bottle itself or appear on the label.
The phrase “Contains Sulfites”– All wine bottled after July 1987 must state this. Wine producers use sulfur in wine primarily to prevent spoilage from bacteria and oxidation and to improve color. Sulfur is readily digested by the human body; however there is a small percentage of the population that has allergies to sulfur.
Government health warning – All alcoholic beverages bottled or imported for sale or distribution in the US since November 18, 1989 must contain a health warning on the label. The warnings include (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.
Vintage dating option – A vintage year may be listed on wines produced in the US if 95% of the grapes harvested and fermented within that calendar year were used and have an appellation more specific than a country name.
Appellation of origin – This refers to the country or region where the grapes were grown. In the US an appellation of origin on the label is mandatory if:
• The name is qualified with the word brand
• The wine is labeled with the vintage (year the grapes were harvested)
• A varietal or type with varietal significance is used
• A generic term is used
California state law requires that if a label lists California as the appellation of origin then 100% of the grapes need to be from California. The majority of other states require that 75% of the grapes come from the specified state. If a label specifies a designated viticultural area (i.e. Napa Valley) a minimum of 85% of the grapes must come from the named region.
European countries that produce wine have a very distinct ranking system. Wines must meet specific criteria to determine rank. A higher ranking does not always mean that it is better, but it is an indication of higher quality.
To very briefly touch on the European Union’s wine ranking system, wines are either categorized as QWPSR (Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region) or Table Wines, with the latter considered a lower status.
The following ranking systems are listed from highest to lowest:
(the intials AOC, AC, VDQS, DOCG, DOC, DO, Qmp & Qba fall into the QWPSR category)
France – AOC or AC, VDQS, Vin de pays, Vin de table
Italy – DOCG, DOC, IGT or Vino da tavola and geographic name, Vino da tavola
Spain – DOC, DO, Vino de la tierra, vino de mesa
Portugal – DO, Vinho regional, Vinho de mesa
Germany – Qmp, Qba, Landwein, Deutscher tafelwein
Varietal – Not mandatory, however if the varietal is named a minimum of 75% of that varietal must be present in the wine.
Additional information not required by law
Winemakers may include a number of other descriptors on the label as well. These often appear on the back label and include buzzwords such as “crisp and dry”, “rich”, “supple”, and “soft”.
Certain terms can be quite meaningful if the wine was produced in a particular country; however the same word may be meaningless elsewhere. An example of this is the term “reserve”. “Reserve” in Italy and Spain indicates a wine has received extra aging, implying that the wine is of better quality and is more expensive. The use of the word “reserve” is not regulated in other countries such as France and the US, and though while historically used to designate a better wine, this is not always the case and may be used for marketing purposes only.
All in all wine labels are a delicate balance between marketing and legality. While there is no substitute for tasting the wine, an educated label reader can definitely make better buying decisions and use the information provided to help reveal the tastes beneath the cork.
Wine of the Month: Joseph Carr Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Napa Valley/$20 bottle. l
Henry Klein III is owner of Cabernet Café, 1814 Western Avenue, Guilderland. For more information call 452.5670 or visit www.cabernetcafe.com.