Wine labels can seem very confusing, but they don’t need to be. Producers really are trying to give you all the information you need to choose wines that fit your palate and price point. Here are a few tips for making sense of those thousands of bottles out there.
Understand how your local store organizes its wine selection. Most of them group wines by country of origin, but some go by grape varietal.
In order to have a varietal designation in the U.S. — i.e., cabernet sauvignon or merlot — a wine needs to be made from at least 75 percent of that grape. There has long been a bias against blends in this country, because they seemed hard to understand, which is, thankfully, slowly disappearing.
The bulk of Old World — read European — wines have long been a mix of grapes, and often the producers themselves don’t know the exact percentage of what’s in the bottle.
Most New World wines — those made in the U.S., Canada, South America, Australia and New Zealand — are generally labeled and marketed based on their brand name and the grapes from which they are produced. Their front labels will clearly state the winery’s name and the grapes they are made from, or their back labels generally detail exact percentages in the blend.
Old World wines generally focus on the region from which they hail — such as Tuscany (Italy), Bordeaux (France) or Rioja (Spain) — and will be produced in a traditional style that centuries-old European wine laws dictate. They, as with many New World wines, also may have a specific vineyard on the label, as the producer believes it historically is the source of good fruit.
In many cases, you would have to do a little research to find out which traditional grapes are produced in Old World regions. Tuscany is famous for sangiovese, a red grape, while Bordeaux reds generally are a mix of up to five different grapes. However, many regulations are changing as new grapes are being planted and used in wine production all over the world.
Wine producers and shop owners may presume that you 1) know which grapes are used, or 2) like a wine regardless of what its contents may be. If you know you love California syrah, they may steer you to a French region, such as the Rhone Valley, that frequently produces wine from that grape.
Wineries are legally obligated to put other information on the bottle, such as alcohol by volume and the vintage, or year the wine was produced. A handful of nonvintage wines on the market combine more than one vintage and can be less expensive. Most sparkling wine and Champagne is made from a blend of different vintages.
Much of the back label copy is subjective and marketing driven. Having tasted thousands of wines in my 20-plus-year career in the wine business, I have doubts that most wines described as having “dark chocolate and black fruit” flavors do indeed taste that way to buyers. The look of the label also doesn’t convey much about what the bottle contains, besides the fact that catchy graphics usually come from a good design firm.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick, a writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.