READ WINE LABELS
Have you ever turned to the back cover of a book to understand the plot before deciding to buy? Well, imagine wine labels to do just the same when you are standing in front of the aisle, deciding which wine to buy. Like the book, each wine bottle can be a story.
Some wine labels come with bare minimum information, while some others with a wealth of data. Most lie somewhere in between. But all wine labels are guided by the laws prevailing in the country where it was produced. Having said that, there are two main styles of wine labels commonly found in stores – ‘Old World’ labeling method (complex with loads of information) and ‘New World’ labeling method (simple and straightforward).
Irrespective of the method, here’s a quick guide on the six information to look for, and understand what to expect from a bottle of wine. For the purpose of explaining we've taken examples of a French wine label (Old World labeling method) and an Australian wine label (New World labeling method).
Left to right: An example of 'Old World' label (from France) emphasizing on the appellation credentials, its quality level rules, and regulations, The other is an example of 'New World' labeling style (from Australia) that highlights the brand name and grape variety used to make the wine.
BRAND NAME OR PRODUCER NAME
This tells you who made the wine. In some cases, the brand name and producer name can be the same. In the above examples, Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils is the name of the producer from France while Jacob’s Creek is an Australian brand of wines from the producer Pernod Ricard.
REGION AND COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Region indicates the geographic location within a country where the grapes were grown to produce the wine. For example, in the above image, Pommard is the wine region in Burgundy, France where the grapes were grown while 'Product of France' indicates that the wine was produced in France. This information should be used as a pointer for the wine style and its likely quality.
GRAPE VARIETY, BLEND, APPELLATION
This tells you which grape variety was used to make the wine. In cases where more than one grape variety was used, either name of all the major varieties or the word ‘Blend’ will be mentioned on the label. Where none is mentioned (mostly in case of Old world wines), look for the appellation. An appellation is more like a French quality certificate, which will give you a clue about which grape variety/varieties were used to make the wine based on the rules governing that region.
For example, in the case of Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils above, instead of the grape variety, the appellation Pommard AOC is mentioned on the wine label. This appellation is only used for red wine with Pinot Noir as the main grape variety. In contrast, the Australian brand Jacob's Creek mentions the name of the grape variety Cabernet Sauvignon upfront on its label.
VINTAGE OR NON-VINTAGE (NV)
A vintage quite simply refers to the year when the grapes were harvested. This is a useful piece of information depending on your familiarity with vintage variations. Typically, the quality of grapes might differ from one year to another just like any agricultural crop, with some years giving an exceptional quality of grapes, indicating that the wines made from those grapes are special and more expensive. On the other hand, a non-vintage (NV) wine has the flexibility to use wine from mixed years to maintain a consistent flavor profile. Comparatively, these wines will be lower priced.
PRO TIP: If you are someone who loves to experiment with wine, you could try different vintages of the same grape variety, made by the same producer, to notice subtle differences in flavor.
SPECIAL DESIGNATION OR CLASSIFICATION
These refer to the production techniques (like barrel fermented) or qualitative distinction like 'Premier Cru' iand 'Classic' in the examples above (or others such as Reserve, Estate bottled) that distinguishes one wine from another in terms of price and quality. While some of the terms used have a legal definition and are strictly regulated, some others are loosely used for distinction.
Usually represented as a percentage by volume (like 12.5% ABV), this indicates the richness or strength of the wine. As a general rule, wines made from riper grapes have high alcohol content and fruit forward flavors. This information can be found either on the front or on the back label of a wine bottle.