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The Wine Label Mysteries

Secrets to Decoding a Wine Label


Although trying to decipher the information on a wine label can sometimes feel like code-breaking, the wine label is not meant to intimidate. The label is the key to understanding what’s in the bottle – things like body, sweetness, complexity, flavor and style, and learning how to read a wine label is an important step to becoming a savvy wine consumer.

Before we dive into the information on the wine label, here are two helpful points to keep in mind:
– There is no standard practice for where information is placed on a wine label
– The information included on a label will vary depending on what country the wine is produced and bottled in

Because the labeling of wine varies so widely by place, and because American bottles tend to dominate most grocery store and bottle shop shelves, this article focuses only on the American wine label.

Most American wine labels provide the following six pieces of information that are very telling about what’s in the bottle (refer to the example wine label with corresponding numbers):

Winery or Producer

1. This is the company or the brand that makes the wine. For example, you may have seen wines with names like “Mondavi” or “Sutter Home” on the label. If you really like a particular bottle of wine, write down the producer’s name so you can find the same wine again or try one of their other varietals or blends.


2. The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested. If a wine label lists a vintage of 2005, the grapes were picked in the Fall/Winter of 2005. This is not the same as the year the grapes were bottled or made available for purchase.

Why does the vintage matter? The same wine can taste very different from year to year because of fluctuations in weather and climate conditions where the grapes are grown. For example, an extremely warm growing season will produce very ripe grapes, and the resulting wines will show high alcohol levels and concentrated flavors. An extremely rainy or cool growing season may not allow grapes to reach full ripeness before picking, leading to wines that aren’t as flavorful or concentrated. While the nuances of vintage are fascinating, it’s not necessary to focus too much on wines of a certain vintage – the year generally won’t make or break the wine.

The vintage also says how old the wine is. Younger wines (0 – 2 years) will generally have vibrant and fruit forward flavors, but they may not yet exhibit a balanced profile. Balance is achieved when the acid and sugar levels in the wine exist in harmony (neither one overpowers the other). If the wine has a higher acid level, it may taste harsh and sharp (you may notice your tongue watering from the acid); if the wine has too much sugar, it may taste flabby and honeyed.

Older wines (3 years) generally exude a nice balance and have a smoother mouth feel; however, this harmony in texture may come at the price of fruit forward and vibrant flavors. Choosing an older or a younger wine is simply a matter of personal preference. I believe in drinking young wines because I value vibrant flavors over balanced textures, but try tasting the same wine from different years to learn what flavors and profiles your own palate likes best.

Where the Grapes are Grown

3. In the U.S., wine grape growing regions are classified in a hierarchy that gets more specific as you move from state, to county, to AVA (American Viticultural Area), and then to vineyard designate. This part of the label will tell you where the grapes in that bottle were grown or sourced (where the wine is bottled is not necessarily where the grapes are grown). This information is important for obvious reasons, but it can also offer some valuable information about how the wine might taste.

As a general rule of thumb, grapes that are grown in cooler climates (regions further from the equator) will have crisp, tangy and vibrant fruit flavors. Grapes that are grown in warmer climates (closer to the equator) will exude ripe, tropical and luscious fruit flavors. You may also perceive these warmer-climate wines to taste sweeter in your mouth (although they will not necessarily be considered “sweet” wines or contain higher sugar levels than a similar cool-climate wine).


4. The varietal of a wine refers to the type of grape that the wine is made of. Just as there are different types of apples (e.g. Granny Smith, Gala, Golden Delicious) or pears (e.g. Bartlett, Concorde, Anjou), there are many different types of grapes. For the general wine consumer (yep – that’s you and me!), the grape varietal is perhaps the most important and telling element of the wine label. Why? Because regardless of growing region, vintage or producer, a cabernet is always going to taste like a cabernet. Sure, there will always be certain nuances depending on all these factors, but the general flavor profile of the grape will stay the same. If you are a new wine consumer, you may want to familiarize yourself with the most popular and widely-distributed varietals. I’ve broken these down by body and flavor profile for easy reference in the article, Decoding the Wine Grape, flavor profiles of wine grape varietals.

Alcohol Content

5. The alcohol content of a wine almost directly correlates with the body of the wine. Body refers to the weight of the wine in your mouth. Try comparing the weight (or body) of wine to the weight (or body) of milk with different fat concentrations. A heavy or full-bodied wine will coat the sides of your mouth like a sip of heavy creamer. A medium-bodied wine will feel more like a sip of whole milk, while a light-bodied wine will feel thinner and more fluid, like a sip of skim milk. As a rule of thumb, full-bodied or heavy wines will have higher alcohol contents and more concentrated flavors.

In general:
– Syrah, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay varietals produce full-bodied wines (12.5   percent alcohol)
– Merlot and sauvignon blanc varietals produce medium-bodied wines (10.5 – 12.5 percent alcohol)
– Pinot noir and riesling varietals produce light-bodied wines (7 – 10.5 percent alcohol)

Wine Tasting Notes, Brand History, Wine Wisdom

6. The back of a wine label often contains a short paragraph that can tout anything from the history of the brand to the winemaker’s personal tasting notes (this is really just a spot for the producers to get a little creative and call out anything extra they’d like their consumers to know about the bottle or brand).

I hope this information helps you decode your next wine label!

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