Decoding Wine Labels: This Is What Common Terms Found on Bottles Tell You About the Wine
Make better wine choices with this helpful guide.
Wine labels can seem confusing-there's a lot of information in such a small place!-but once you know the tricks and what to look for, you really can learn a lot about the bottle you're considering simply by looking at the label. Here, everything you need to decode the wine label in front of you.
Let's start with the most simple and obvious piece of information on a wine label: the name of the winery that produced it. The most important thing to note is that the winery where the wine was produced should not be confused with the vineyard the grapes came from. Not all wineries have a vineyard. Many source grapes from local growers and simply make the wine; some grow the grapes as well. The winery itself is the production facility, and several wineries may use grapes from the same vineyard. A winery's head winemaker will be in charge of creating and overseeing the finished wine. Like the head chef of a restaurant, they oversee many staff members who contribute to the winemaking process. Ultimately though it's their creative expression that ends up on your table.
This is the year printed on the label, and it refers to the year the grapes were harvested. This is important because the wine will reflect the climate conditions of that particular growing season, which affect the taste. For example, grapes grown in a cold, rainy season night have less ripeness so they will produce a more tart and acidic wine with lower alcohol than in a warm, sunny vintage. For wine lovers this can be frustrating; you may fall in love with a certain vintage, only to discover the following year has a totally different taste, but it's also a constant reminder that wine is an agricultural product and not a factory-produced one, and every vintage is special and unique.
This is the place where the grapes come from. Generally, wines from a larger region ('California') are value brands, and as the appellations-also known as grape growing areas that are regulated by the government-get more specific ('Napa Valley') or even very precise ('Spring Mountain' which is a sub-region inside Napa Valley), the more prestigious and refined in quality the wines become.
Sometimes this is in very fine print but, every wine bottle is required to list the ABV, or Alcohol by Volume, of the wine. This will range from six to seven percent for very light wines (like moscato), up to 15-16 percent for very full-bodied reds. Fortified wines like port may have 18-20 percent ABV because a neutral spirit like brandy is added to the wine, making it even stronger.
Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, malbec, and cabernet are all types of grape varieties. Generally, wines made in the New World (the U.S., South America, Australia, and New Zealand) will list this on the label. A big exception to this is the very popular "red blend" category, which may not list the grape varieties, a quick web search can often tell you what is in a particular red blend. If you don't see a grape variety listed, it's likely the wine is from the Old World (France, Italy, Spain, and other European regions). European wines are primarily identified by the appellation. Rioja, Burgundy, and Chianti are all places, not grapes. This is because traditionally the winemakers considered the grape variety only a small aspect of the finished wine. After all, the grape variety can only tell you so much; the appellation also takes into lots of other aspects of the wine such as the soil types, rainfall, climate, local traditions, types of wine barrels used, and how long the wine was aged.
Learning a little about the rules behind your favorite appellation can help. For example, the main red grape variety of Burgundy is pinot noir and the main white grape is chardonnay. That information might not be listed on the label but once you know it, it can help you when selecting wines off the shelf.
In sparkling wines (including Champagne, prosecco, and cava) you will see terms that indicate how much sugar has been added to the wine upon bottling. These are defined as follows:
- Brut Nature: 0-3 grams added sugar per liter
- Extra Brut: up to 6 grams/liter
- Brut: up to 12 grams/liter
- Extra Dry: 12-17 grams/liter
- Dry: 17-32 grams/liter
- Demi Sec: 32-50 grams/liter
- Doux: 50+ grams/liter
If you're limiting your sugar intake, brut, extra brut, and brut nature are great choices.
One of the most controversial elements of any wine label are these ominous words: "contains sulfites." All wines contain sulfites; they are a naturally occurring substance in any wine. Because a very small percentage of people are truly allergic to sulfites (estimated at less than one percent), the FDA requires that labels list this warning. For the other 99 percent, sulfites are not harmful. Some wineries also add a little sulphur dioxide during bottling as a preservative to stabilize the wine for a longer shelf life. Those that do not add any sulphur during bottling may say "no added sulfites" on the label but there's truly no sulfite-free wine.
To give you an idea of the amount of sulfites in wine compared to other food items: wine generally ranges in sulfites from 20-350 parts per million. Dried fruit like raisins, prunes, dried apricots have 500-2000 parts per million. So, if dried fruit doesn't cause an allergic reaction for you, wine should be fine. Anyone who thinks they are sensitive to sulfites should stick with red wine because it is generally lower in sulfites; a typical dry red ranges from 50-75 parts per million while a dry white has around 100.