A staggering 85% of us admit to purchasing a wine based on the label alone… is it because we are all secret magpies simply attracted to pretty things?
Or because you need a degree in de-coding to understand the wine labels?
We can’t unfortunately dissect every label you’ll ever come across, but this guide is a good place to start. There are two main styles of wine labels; One that is designed by its “Appellation Credentials” and the other is identified by its “Brand Name”.
So, what is an Appellation Credential???
These are simply a set of rules that are given to a particular wine region, and whereby any producer within that region must follow. The rules, or appellation credentials, include strict rules governing which grapes are allowed, crop yield, alcohol strength and quality level.
Further more, the rules also dictate what must be included on the wine label, and as each region and country can have different rules – its not surprising the labels can be so confusing.
Let’s look at an example;
WINE LABEL BY APPELLATION
This is a classic example of an appellation credential wine label and unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s no wonder so many of us opt for a simple picture of a flower on the label instead!
As you can see by the arrows; this label provides all the “rules” but nowhere does it tell you that Macon-Villages is produced using Chardonnay grapes, nor that Macon-Villages is typically un-oaked – which ironically are the main points people want to know!
I can’t help but wonder if this secret squirrel code was created to help keep the mystery within the wine world, but sadly, the mystery often turns into wine snobbery!
BRAND NAME WINE LABEL
Brand name labels are so much easier to understand and the grape from which the wine is produced is usually on the front label - this could be Shiraz as the example shows, or a blend. Most blended wines will then list the included varieties on the back label. Again as mentioned above, every region and origin has its rules on what has to be included. For example; some regions only have to mention a particular grape variety if it contains 75% or more.
RIOJA WINE LABEL
To add to the confusion you might come across wine labels that are a mix of both, and Rioja is one of them!
Here you will see the wine is usually referred to using the brand name, but the appellation crudentials still have to be present. Here, the word “Rioja” represents the appellation as well as the region, and the producers must also include the ageing status. Which if you understand them, gives you great insight as to the level of “depth and body” you could expect from the wine.
Look against the ageing statement on this example Rioja, and you will see “Crianza “. By using this simple Rioja Appellation guide; it tells us that it has been aged for a minimum of 2 years. Logic also tells us that the longer a wine has been aged – the more intense the flavour profiles will be.
TEMPRANILLO / TINTO / JOVEN: Aged for less than 1 year
CRIANZA: Aged for minimum 2 years
RESERVA: Aged for minimum 3 years
GRAN RESERVA: Aged for minimum of 5 years
If you haven't lost the will to live, here are some other puzzling wordings often seen on wine labels:
RESERVE – Unfortunately another example of secret squirrel / wine snobbery! The use of “Reserve” has no official definition, or laws to abide therefore can only be interpreted by the consumer! It often means that it’s one of the producer’s higher quality wines, or that they have used their best grapes. But with no laws to follow, or clear guidelines – it could also mean nothing at all so don’t pay too much attention to this seven-letter word.
ESTATE BOTTLED – Simply means that the wine was grown, produced, and bottled on the afore mentioned wine estate. In a very bold generalisation, it is thought that these wines tend to be of higher quality than those produced from several different locations.
Not bi-lingual? Look out for these phrases…
FRENCH: Mis en Bouteille au Chateau / au domaine / a la Propriete
SPANISH: Embotellat a la Propietat
ITALIAN: Imbottigliato all’origine
OLD VINE – Predominantly used to suggest the grapes have been harvested from the oldest vines on the estate, however, there are no set rules as to how old the vines need to be to gain this title. Grapes from older vines tend to offer more concentrated flavours, but with a huge scale running from 15yrs to 115yrs, the age of the vine used is rather subjective!
FRENCH: Vielles Vignes
CONTAINS SULPHITES – A scary word that usually gets the blame for headaches and hangovers! Just to confirm – it is usually the quantity of wine consumed that causes both of those! Sulphites are a chemical compound that occur naturally in the fermentation process of all types of wine – so they’re even present in Organic wines (very small amounts). However, some producers purposely add more sulphites during the wine making process to protect the wine against oxidation or to halt the fermentation altogether.
It is true that some people are intolerant to sulphites, but in addition, others are intolerant to gluten, so to keep things into perspective; wines must declare “contains sulphites” if they have more than 10 parts of sulphites per million parts of wine (pmp). Compare this to most dried fruits, which tend to contain around 30pmp and we can all pass on the apricots and top up our glass.
Thirst For More?
Sulphites tend to be lower in red wines because they naturally contain anti-oxidants, acquired from their skins and stems during the wine making process; therefore the need to “top-up” becomes less.