6 More Things Everyone Should Know About American Wine Labels

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Terminology on US wine labels is not as concrete as it may seem. Last week, I discussed varietal labeling and statements of origin, showing that they offer producers a good bit of flexibility. Today we’ll look at six more elements of a wine label that may be confusing: alcohol percentage, vintage dating, estate bottled, reserve, old vine and Meritage. Here are 6 more terms everyone should understand about American wine labels.

1. Alcohol percentage

Every bottle of wine sold in the United States must have a statement of alcoholic content on the wine label. However, the number doesn’t have to be particularly accurate.

For wine that’s 14.0% alcohol or less, the statement can merely read “table wine.” Most producers do choose to use a numeric statement. But even then, the actual alcohol level can be plus or minus 1.5% the stated percentage. For wines of more than 14.0%, the leeway is a little less—plus or minus 1%.

As usual, there’s an exception. The fudge factors don’t allow crossing the 14.0% barrier, because the tax rates are different. So, for example, a wine with an actual alcohol percentage of 13.5% could be labeled as anything from 12% to 14%. And one that’s 15.0% could be listed from 14.01% to 16.5%. The TTB is happy if, as musicians like to say, it’s close enough for jazz.

Note: These laws with respect to alcohol percentage don't apply only to wine made in the United States. All wine sold here has to comply. If an imported bottle doesn't have the correct labeling, the importer adds a supplementary label. That label will also cover other requirements, such as the health and sulfite statements.

2. Estate Bottled

Most people assume “estate bottled” means the estate vineyard is adjacent to the winery. That may be the case, but isn’t a legal requirement in this country. The winery doesn’t even have to own the vineyard.

To use the term “estate bottled,” these things must be true:

  • The winery and vineyard are in the same AVA.
  • The winery owns or controls the portion of the vineyard the grapes came from. (“Control” can be a long-term lease or an arrangement giving the producer authority over how the grapes are grown and harvested.)
  • The entire winemaking and bottling process is performed by/at the winery in that AVA—the wine isn’t sent off-site to a sub-contractor at any point. (Bottling trucks that come to the winery are okay.)

Here are some examples:

If a winery located in Napa Valley’s Rutherford District AVA makes a Chardonnay from a Carneros AVA vineyard they control...

  • The wine label could say “Napa Valley AVA, Estate Bottled,” because both Rutherford and Carneros are in Napa Valley.
  • It could say “Carneros AVA, Estate Grown,” because "estate grown" only relates to grape growing, not winemaking and bottling.
  • But the label could not legally read “Carneros AVA, Estate Bottled.”

If that same winery makes a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir...

  • The wine label could say “North Coast AVA, Estate Bottled”—because Napa County and Sonoma County are both in the North Coast AVA.
  • Or it could say Sonoma Coast AVA, Estate Grown.
  • But “Sonoma Coast AVA, Estate Bottled” would not be legal.

2013 Grgich Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay

Grgich Hills Estate could easily use the term "estate bottled" on their wine label, since both their fruit and winery are entirely within Napa Valley. However, they say "estate grown" to put emphasis their strong focus on vineyard stewardship.

3. Vintage

Almost all premium wines made in the United States are vintage dated. The most obvious exception is sparkling wines which are usually multi-vintage blends. Those are labeled as “NV,” meaning non-vintage, or the vintage is simply not mentioned. But producers of still wines aren’t required to declare a vintage on the table either. And, if the statement of origin is only the United States—not a state, county, AVA, etc.—then the producer is actually prohibited by law from putting a vintage on the bottle.

Having a vintage date on the bottle does not mean 100% of the wine is necessarily from that vintage. Producers can blend in a little wine from other vintages if they wish. Blending vintages in non-sparkling wines occurs most frequently with red wines, since those are often aged in barrel for more than a year at the winery. The typical reason for blending vintages is to make a more complete, well-rounded wine.

The amount of vintage blending legally allowed depends on the specificity of origin. If the origin designated on the wine label is a state or county, 85% of the grapes must have come from the indicated vintage. But, if the label identifies an AVA as the origin, the vintage requirement is 95%. As we learned last week, if the origin is simply “United States,” no vintage date is allowed.

4. Reserve

In some places, the term “reserve” on a wine label has a legal meaning. For example, in Spain (Reserva) and Italy (Riserva) it means the wines in question have been aged longer at the winery than non-reserve wines. The minimum aging requirement for these wines depends on the specific region and whether the wine is red or white.

This is not true in the United States. Here, “reserve” has no legal definition with respect to wine. It can mean whatever an individual winery’s marketing department wants it to mean. Among the things the term has been used to indicate here are barrel selections, a blend that emphasizes a particular vineyard block, more bottle age, more barrel age, a greater percentage of a certain grape, more new oak, more French oak, limited production, etc. Sometimes it just means the winery wants to make the wine sound like it’s worth a higher price.

5. Old vine

Over the past 30 years or so, the number of producers putting the phrase “old vine” on their labels has increased dramatically. Many people now associate old vines with character, intensity and complexity. However, there are no laws whatsoever dictating what constitutes an old vine.

For the most part, wineries only use the term for vines that are 25+ years old. But there’s nothing to stop a producer from putting fruit from ten-year old vines into an “old vine” bottle. Likewise, “ancient vines” is typically reserved for vines at least 50 years of age and “century vines” for those over 100, but there aren’t any related regulations.

2013 seghesio old vine zinfandel

Seghesio won't label a wine "old vine" unless all of the vines used are at least 50-years old. The average age of the vines used in this wine is 70+.

6. Meritage

“Meritage” is a trademark belonging to the Meritage Alliance. The word was created— combining “merit” and “heritage”—by a group of American wineries in 1988 as an alternative to the phrase “Bordeaux blend.” Bordeaux is a protected place name by EU law and no longer usable on wine labels from other regions.

In order to use “Meritage” on a label:

  • The winery must be a member of the Meritage Alliance and pay membership/licensing fees.
  • The wine must be a red or white blend, based solely on the top grapes of Bordeaux. Those are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere and St. Macaire for red and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle for white.
  • No single variety can constitute more than 90% of the blend.

Meritage is strictly a marketing term intended to communicate the style of wine to a consumer. There are no laws requiring its use. In fact, most American wineries making Bordeaux-variety blends choose not to call the wines Meritage. They typically give the wine their own proprietary name, such as Joseph Phelps "Insignia," Cain "Five" and Chateau St. Jean "Cinq Cepage," or just call it a red wine or red blend.

Check outJJ Buckley's extensive selection of American wines that are "proprietary red blends,"most of which could qualify to be Meritage. 

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and GuildSomm. He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.