What's in a wine label?

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

Before we get started, I have to mention the passing of Robert Mondavi. He did more for fine wines in the United States than anyone else. His story is quite fascinating and well worth reading up on with a glass of wine. I have always thought that is important to remember those before us who have contributed to what we enjoy today, no matter what it is.

Now on to today's topic: wine labels. The wine label is your guide to the pleasure you are looking for when picking a bottle. Depending on where the wine is produced, the label will vary with sometimes confusing information.

Let's start in our own country. California wines will tell you the vineyard (such as Mondavi), county or location (Napa), variety of wine (chardonnay), vintage (year bottled), alcohol content and usually what it was fermented in - wood, stainless steel or both.

For a wine to be labeled a particular variety - cabernet, merlot, etc. - it must contain 75 percent of that wine. For a wine to state it is from a particular county, 80 percent of the wine must come from that county.

Generally speaking, a wine of higher alcohol content is also going to be drier or less sweet. As wine ferments the sugar converts to alcohol. So a wine that is 13 or 14 percent alcohol is going to be a dry wine.

Wood aging is more expensive than stainless steel and will make a wine more complex; a lot of wines are fermented in both. This does not mean that a California white table wine that is a non-vintage and fermented in stainless steel is going to be inexpensive or of lesser quality, it could be just the opposite. The winemaker may have been using better grapes of different varieties from different locations.

Usually the back label will also have a lot of information concerning the wine's taste and characteristics.

One more thing to keep in mind is that there are no guidelines for reserve wines. I don't think any winery is trying to be deceiving but it is good to pay attention to price, etc. when selecting a reserve wine.

Confused yet? It only gets worse. European wines are designated by region. Usually each region grows a predominant grape, but most wines are a blend of several varieties. We are getting into a territory that whole books are written on so I am going to wait until later articles to cover some of this ground. The point I want to get across is: Read the label, front and back. This will be an education in itself. Also, wine merchants are now putting out little descriptors and ratings on wines from various sources. This also is a great way to learn about wine, without having to buy the bottle.

If it's too much work to pick out a bottle before dinner or if you're in a hurry, try my wife's technique. She figures out what kind of wine she wants and the price range, and then goes to the label she likes the best. Sometimes she reads the label, sometimes not. Usually, to my chagrin, she grabs a nice bottle without all of the hoopla. So pick your own technique and get going.

Cheers, until next time.

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