Three Most Important Parts of a Wine Label
Shopping for wine can be confusing, intimidating, and even exhausting sometimes. There are countless words in countless languages with countless meanings. All of this chaos is s built on the foundations of a million different countries and regions and their particular wine classification and legal systems. For example, one bottle could say, “Cotes du Rhone”, another could say, “Chateauneuf du Pape”, and another, “Crozes-Hermitage”. To someone not familiar with the Rhone Valley, this could mean absolutely nothing.
The names and references on a bottle of wine are only one aspect that can help guide your decision-making. There are many potential hints and signs to look for on a wine label, especially today as labeling laws are changing and producers are adapting to specific climates. We are going to focus on three of the most important in this post. These include the region of the grapes; the wine producer; and the wine importer. Keep in mind that these are not definite and can vary across producers. These factors are just common parts of a label that can guide you in your wine-buying process more times than not.
Country and Region
Knowing where a particular wine and its grapes come from will help better understand the terroir and style of wine. The specificity will also serve as an indicator of the quality of the wine. Learning more about regions that you like and their varietals and sub-regions will help you find similar wines and will only enrich your experience. At the bare minimum, a bottle of wine should at least have some sort of region on there, even if it is broad. If it doesn’t, do not fret. This wine is still great for slugging wine and making sangria.
Not all countries provide the specific grape varietals on the bottle, particularly in old-world wine regions such as France, Italy, and Spain. Instead, they will often put a specific region on the bottle such as “Bordeaux” or “Rioja”. There are usually specific grapes used in common proportions in these regions, so for better or worse, many producers assume wine drinkers will already have an idea of what they are. For example, if a bottle says “Bourgogne”, it’s safe to assume it is Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Wines from a particular sub-region might be even more specific such as Saint Emilion within Bordeaux or Vouvray within the Loire Valley. Keep in mind that there is no pressure to learn all of the wine regions of the world and their corresponding grapes, though it could be helpful to learn more about specific regions you particularly like.
Generally, the more specific the region, the better the quality. While this is not always the case, how narrowed down or vague a wine’s origin is will likely be indicative of the quality. If a wine producer simply puts “California” or “France” on the label, then the grapes can come from anywhere within those regions. The grape varietals and terroir can vary drastically between sub-regions, but this can also indicate lower quality grapes. Continuing off of the same examples, if a bottle says “Napa Valley” or “Saint-Emillion”, there are recognizable names associated with quality wine and specific climates, styles, and varietals. Being able to produce wine from specific regions and sub-regions shows a certain amount of effort and care. This is not to say that broadly labeled wine is bad, as there is still great value wine labeled as “Washington State” or “Oregon”.
Wine producers are another factor on a wine label that can indicate the quality of the wine and what to expect. While wines, even from the same producer and vineyard, change year to year, many producers still produce a particular style of wine unique to them. After all, well-known and popular producers usually gain and maintain their reputation due to the consistent quality of their wine. For example, if someone who loves southern Rhone wine sees Famille Perrin or Guigal on the label, the names themselves will provide assurances of the wine’s quality.
While popular and reputable wine producers deservedly receive the attention they do, not knowing or being familiar with a particular winery isn’t a good reason not to try their wine. New wineries pop up every year and older wineries are constantly improving themselves. Not knowing the name, Herencia Altes, didn’t stop me from trying their wine. Their wine even ignited my love for Garnacha Blanca.
Wine importers are often a vast (or narrow) window into a particular style of wines or region. They represent the niche converging point between the producer and the region, as the importer picks specific wines based on their liking, portfolio, style, and other preferences. Some importers may focus on the old world, or even specific old world countries such as France and Italy, while others may be focused on the new world including the likes of Argentina and New Zealand.
If you notice you like a particular bottle of wine, find the importer on the back. Then, when you are trying to find a new bottle to try, you can keep an eye out for wines from that same importer. Chances are if someone likes one bottle from an importer, he or she will like more from the same wine importer. The importers usually have their own style, standards, and specific regions that can be matched with wine drinkers.
Other Important Factors
There are countless other parts of a wine label that can give some idea of what the wine will be like.
- ABV – The alcohol content of a wine can have a tremendous effect on the outcome of the wine. Alcohol in general imparts more flavors, structure, and textures to wine. This is usually seen most in the body of the wine. Higher alcohol wines, usually above 13% tend to have a fuller body while those under tend to be more medium and light.
- Vintage – This refers to the year on the label, and it shows what year the used grapes were harvested. Most wine will have a vintage year. The vintage can give wine drinkers some idea of how a particular wine might be drinking depending on the region and current year. Some wine styles and regions such as Champagne and Port tend to be non-vintage and may have “NV” on the bottle. This is extrmely common and doesn’t neccessarily mean its a poor quality wine, as vintage releases in these regions are reserved for absolute best years.
- Wine Certifications – This can include a range of certifications from government agencies, private reputable organizations, and governing wine bodies. If you look on the back of any given wine bottle at your local shop, there is a good chance you will see different logos. These can include accrediations for biodynamic, organic, and sustainable farming. Others can include regional classifications such as “DOC” and “AOC”.
- The General Aesthetic – This last one is not an officially recognized or objective factor, but more of a personal observation. The overall design of a wine label can potentially say a good deal about the overall style of the wine. Flashy, vibrant, and artsy labels will not automatically be good despite having eye-catching labels. Minimalist and “boring” labels are not inherantly bad are often times some of the best wine in the world. This isn’t an attack on artsy labels, as there is plenty of great wine that falls under this description. It is more of a simple caution. While these vibrant and flashy labels may just be the style of the winery and designer, they could also be covering up a less-than-ideal wine. Another way to look at is that minimalist labels are more likely to be old-world styled wine, while more vibrant labels tend to be in the new-world style.