How to read a wine label

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A recently published article addressed the all-too-common consumer conundrum: how to select a wine on the shelf at the store amidst seemingly infinite amount of competing product. If the label “pops” does that guarantee the wine will be good? No. If the label is boring and traditional, does that mean it’s a high quality product? Not necessarily.

As consumers we’re attracted to an array of marketing techniques, for better or for worse, and often find ourselves reaching for the bottle whose label speaks to us. While I’m the first to admit guilt of this (and really there is no shame, because labels can be a fun talking point at a dinner party in spite of what’s in the bottle), our best defense against smart marketers and talented label designers is a good offense: knowing how to read a wine label.

From a regulatory standpoint, wine labels must be approved by the federal entity: the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the U.S. Department of the Treasury). Each federally approved wine label has what is called a COLA (Certificate of Label Approval), and must contain the following mandatory elements:

  • A brand name (e.g. Barefoot, Silver Oak)
  • Class or type designation (e.g. Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Red Table Wine)
  • Alcohol content (i.e. within a maximum of 1.5% tolerance from actual alcohol)
  • Bottler’s name and address (i.e. this statement will also tell if the bottler “produced” or “vinted” the wine; the bottler is not always the producer). This can be a red flag if a brand is touting its meticulous winemaking methods on a bottle of wine that they didn’t produce, but purchased from a third-party producer.
  • Net contents (e.g. 750 ml)
  • Sulfite declaration (i.e. if the total sulfur dioxide or other sulfating agent is 10 ppm or greater)
  • Alcohol beverage health warning statement (i.e. the government warning about risks of alcohol)

Everything and anything else on the label is non-mandatory information that you can chalk up to marketing and/or brand imaging. However, there are a few very common optional terms that do provide the consumer with additional, valuable insights to the wine:

  • Vintage date (must be at least 85% from stated vintage year, in many cases it’s at least 95%)
  • Appellation of origin (a political or viticultural area like Napa County or Napa Valley, respectively; must be at least 75% from a political subdivision, or 85% from a designated American Viticultural Area)
  • Varietal designations (there may be some overlap with class/type designation, but a one-varietal wine like a Merlot must be made with at least 75% merlot grapes; wines are often blends, even though you think you’re drinking a single-varietal wine)
  • Estate bottled (this is a powerful term that often indicates a specialty-boutique wine; 100% of the wine comes from the winery’s estate, and 100% of the winemaking process—including bottling—occurs at that same winery)

Wine labels can be a giant cluster-fuck of confusion. It’s so intimidating that many people just avoid buying wine all together. An informed consumer is an empowered consumer. Wade through the romance copy on the label and hone in on the federally-regulated fields in order to know what you’re buying. Eyeing the independent scores from the various wine-media outlets (typically below the bottle on the shelf, or sometimes as a necker accessory on the bottle) are your best bet for getting honest input on the wines, but don’t discount a wine that doesn’t have any accolades bragging in the shop either. Sometimes those wineries are the less corporate ones who don’t submit to publications with the same vigor that larger wineries are inclined to.

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One Response to How to read a wine label

  1. Pingback: Race to the bottle | Married to Wine: a Ménage à Trois

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