Tips on How to Read Wine Labels

Tips on How to Read Wine Labels

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines


Corks lying in a pile next to a bottle of wine

Wine labels vary from producer to producer and from country to country. While they convey a wealth of information and can be quite artistic, they can also be complicated and confusing.

Have you ever found yourself reading a wine label and wondering what a term means or whether the wine is of high quality? Understanding wine labels isn’t always straightforward, and that’s why we’ve put together a guide to eliminate the confusion.

The 6 Main Parts of a Wine Label

Producer or Wine Name

The producer is whoever made the wine. Some wines, such as Terra di Lavoro and Eighty Four, list the producer name in smaller print elsewhere and focus instead on the branded wine name.

Type of Wine

This is where you’ll see the varietal or wine blend, such as pinot noir or port blend. However, not all wines list the grapes that make up the blend or their proportions.

Also, varietally labeled wines aren’t necessarily pure. Wines produced in the United States can be labeled with a varietal if they contain at least 75 percent of one grape (90 percent in Oregon). Elsewhere, 85 percent is the standard benchmark.

Growing Region or Appellation

This section is highly variable. The region in question could be large (California), legitimately "regional" (Napa County) or more specific (Calistoga AVA or Russian River Valley AVA). Other wines list the growing region by the specific vineyard, indicating the grapes came from one vineyard only, instead of from several vineyards around the region.

Some appellations, especially throughout Europe, are only allowed to grow certain grape varieties for use in their blends. Knowing what the appellation allows can help you understand both the growing region and the grapes used. This can be useful for learning how to read French and Italian wine labels, among others.

Year/Vintage

Most wines state their vintage on the bottle, indicating the year the grapes were harvested. Some wine growing regions, such as France, Northern Italy, Germany and Northern Spain, can have unpredictable weather. This means that some of these wines can have a wide range of quality, depending on the vintage.

Warmer climates tend to have more predictable weather, which can lead to more consistency among vintages. Keep in mind that this is a generalization, as good and bad harvests can and do happen everywhere.

Bottles without a vintage, or non-vintage bottles, will typically contain wine from several harvests.

Alcohol Content

You’ll also see the alcohol percentage by volume (ABV) listed on most wine bottles. Standard ABV is about 12 percent, but the amount varies widely. Wines can have a lower ABV, such as 5.5 percent for Moscato d’Asti or 7 percent for the German Kabinett Riesling. They can also have up to 16 percent for California Zinfandel and 20 percent for fortified Madeira.

Keep in mind that the listed ABV isn’t a firm number. U.S. winemakers are allowed +/-1.5 percent, which means a bottle listed as 12.5 percent alcohol could be as low as 11 percent or as high as 14 percent alcohol. European winemakers are allowed a margin of 0.5 percent.

Volume

Finally, every bottle lists how much wine it contains. Measurement is typically in milliliters, with 750 mL as the standard wine bottle amount. Other than 750 mL, you’re most likely to see the Magnum, 1.5L, on the shelves.

At the extremes, bottles can contain as little as 187.5 mL (the Split or Piccolo bottle) and as much as 30L (the Melchizedek or Midas bottle). Also, some European producers use centiliters instead of milliliters (75 cl vs 750 mL).

Other Information You’ll Find on Wine Labels

You may see where the wine was bottled. “Estate bottled” means the producer grew the grapes, produced the wine, and bottled the wine. “Produced and bottled by” means the producer fermented the grapes but did not grow them. “Cellared and bottled by” means the producer received the grape must only after it was fermented.

Especially in European wines you may see the term "old vine" listed on the bottle. This means the grapes came from older vines, which typically have more concentrated flavors and produce fewer grapes – often of higher quality. The wording will say Vieilles Vignes in France, Alte Reben in Germany, Vecchie Viti in Italy and Vinas Viejas in Spain. In the United States and Australia, you may see simply "Old Vine" on the label.

Reserve is another term that might appear on the wine bottle. Reserve wines are considered higher quality since they’re aged for longer. However, in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and other countries, there are no set rules determining what qualifies as aging for Reserve labeling – that decision comes down to the specific producer. Only in Spain and Italy are there specific rules about when wine labels can say Reserva or Riserva, respectively.

Recap: The Steps to Read a Wine Label

To understand the information on the wine label, make sure you:

  • Locate the producer name or wine name
  • Identify the varietal or blend
  • Determine where the grapes were harvested (the appellation or growing region)
  • Check for the vintage
  • Look at the ABV
  • Check the bottle volume
  • Then look for additional information, such as whether the wine is estate bottled, if the wine has special aging, or if the grapes came from older vines.

Reading International Wine Labels

Whether you’ve wondered how to read a Spanish wine label, for example, or you’d simply like to expand your wine terminology, keep reading for a few additional terms you might see on international wine labels.

Germany

  • Grosse Lage – Top-quality vineyard
  • Goldkapsel – The harvest’s gold capsule (highest quality) wine
  • Erste Lage – From a high-quality vineyard

France

  • Centenaire – Grapes from 100-year-old vines
  • Recoltes – Estate-grown grapes
  • Selection de Grains Nobles – Wine from botrytized grapes
  • Petillant – Lightly sparkling wine
  • Eleve en futs de chene – Oak-aged

Spain

  • Crianza – Red wine aged for 24 months; white wine for 12 months
  • Reserva – Red wine aged for 3 years; white wine for 2 years
  • Gran Reserva – Red wine aged for 5 years; white wine for 4 years
  • Roble – Oak-aged
  • DO Pago – Single-estate wine

Italy

  • Riserva – Extended aging (varies by wine type)
  • Superiore – Wine with higher alcohol and fewer grapes per acre
  • Classico – Special historic zone within the wine region

Now that you’ve mastered reading wine labels, we encourage you to peruse our ever-expanding fine wine collection at JJ Buckley Fine Wines. We also offer wine consultation services, should you require additional assistance locating the perfect bottle.