Lesson 8 Objectives: In a simple and decoded way, this lesson will teach you what to look for in wine labels and equip with you some key terminologies that indicate good quality bottles.
Understand Wine Labels in 3 Simple Steps
(1) Look for 5 elements:
The following five elements will tell you the most about the bottle in your hand:
- Grape Variety (or appellation*): tells you the most about the body and complexity of the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo are full-bodied, intense, and tannic.
- Region: hints the expected style, intensity, and flavor. For example, Bordeaux wines are often more tannic and age better due to its cooler climate, rich soil and respect to appellation norms.
- Producer / Vineyard: tells you most about the wine quality and expected consistency. For example, the names Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion - all classified Premier Crus (first growths) in 1855 - indicate consistent quality.
- Alcohol level: implies the body and sweetness of a bottle of wine. Above 14% wines are full-bodied and more tannic. Sweeter and lighter wines generally have alcoholic level below 11%. Sugar from grapes is tranformed into alcohol during the fermentation process. Some Germany Riesling producers reduce fermentation time to attain sweeter wines.
- Vintage: or the year the wine is produced – reveals the best time to drink the wine. For example, a 1982 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac that ages well over 20-30 years is best drunk in the next couple years.
*French and many European wines are described by appellation rather than by grape variety. Appellation is the place of origin. In order to qualify for the appellation, the wine must be made from certain types of grapes. For example, Paulliac is predominantly composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
For the wine intermediates: Vintage should be considered with its producing region. First of all, vintage years matter more for regions affected by fluctuating weather. In addition, countries have varying regulations on vintage labeling. In the US, 95% of the grapes must be harvested in the marked year; compared to 85% for many European countries, and 75% for Chile and Argentina. Higher percentage of grapes from the same year yields more concentrated flavors. The extra room allows producers to top off the wines with other wines. In Europe and many developing wine countries, many producers would make use of the 15-25% margin, balancing and adjusting the taste with older / newer wines.
(2) Recognize these terms:
Terms that indicates a good quality bottle:
AOC / DOC: Appellation terminology in multiple languages that indicates a higher or special quality wine.
- France: Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)
- Italy: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).
- Portugal: Denominacao de Origem Controlada (DOC) or Indicacao de Proviniencia Regulamentada (IPR)
- Spain: Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOC) or Denominacion de Origen (DO)
Grands Cru or Premiers Cru: commonly used in the French region to describe a vineyard of high quality. For example in France, the top 1% of Burgundy wines would be labedled Grands Cru; and only 10% of Burgundy wines would fall into the Premiers Cru category.
Gran Reserva: The wine is bottled for at least 5 years.
Mis en bouteille au chateau / domaine / a la propriete / Gutsabfüllung (estate bottled) : this means the wine is bottled in the estate. Traditionally, this label is affixed on wines that are estates’ favorites.
Vieilles Vignes (old vines): the wine is made from grapes grown on old vines, usually over 40 years old. Old vines have lower grape yield but produces grapes with richer flavors.
Marketing has affected the wine labeling in the past decades. Often you will come across wine terms that look grand but in reality, are no quality assurance:
For example, “Superieur” describes a bottle with a higher alcohol level rather than being superior. Also “Grand Vin” means the main wine of the vineyard rather than grand wine. “Reserve” means extra aging but is so commonly marked on bottles (and has no commonly agreed standards) that it provides minimal / no differentiation.
(3) Follow two examples:
Example 1: Appellation Wine Label (French Red)
Chateau Latour is one of world’s most famous and established wine estates. It was also one of the original four estates classified as Premier Crus or First Growths in the famous classification back in 1855. To many wine drinkers, the estate name implies a superior quality and balanced wine.
From the appellation, we know that the wine is from the Pauillac commune (located in the Medoc region, northwest of Bordeaux). It is also a red blend. Looking up the appellation table, you will find that Pauillac is composed of mainly cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
The red circles highlighted two familiar terms: “Mis en Bouteille au Chateau” and “Premier Grand Cru Classe”. The wine was bottled in the estate and is a first growth. Thus the expected style (knowing the vineyard and the vine) would be full-bodied, concentrated, rich, and tannic.For best enjoyment, this wine should be served at a slightly lower than room temperature and decanted. As this is an aged wine, avoid prolonged aeration during serving.
Example 2: Varietal Wine Label (New Zealand White)
Cloudy Bay, a wine named after a large bay in New Zealand, is a familiar label to many Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Located in New Zealand’s south island, Marlborough district produces the top Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
The label clearly indicates the grape variety is Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has memorable characteristics – especially rich in aromas, fruity, crispy, and very well balanced.
The wine is produced in 2003 – a rough year with two severe frosts in the New Zealand spring time. Luckily the Marlborough region had a sunny fall, allowing the grapes to ripen with flavor.