How to Read The (American) Wine Label

I love browsing Snooth and quite often find myself sucked into their forum – before you know it, an hour has gone by! 

Anyway, here’s a question that wasn’t from y’all.  A new enthusiast posed this question in the forum. But, I figure if she wonders, probably lots of others do, too, so think of this as “Reading the Wine Label 101”. 

Question: I just purchased a bottle of Campus Oaks – Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi 2007. Now what that all means…not sure yet; but that is something that I would like to learn. What certain wines mean and what the 2007 stands for? The year that it was bottled, picked off the vine or what!?!?

Now, reading an American wine label is a cake walk compared to most any European label, so let’s start with that. And, fortunately, most new-world wine labels have similar requirements behind them. Grab yourself a bottle and take a look. I just took a bottle of Ideology Cabernet Sauvignon from my “cellar”.

The brand name is usually the biggest thing on the label ๐Ÿ˜‰

Vintage date Next it says 2006: The vintage date is the harvest date. It’s kind of like putting up jam. The weather during the growing season has a huge impact on wine flavors (think of the difference between unripe fruit, perfectly ripe fruit and over-ripe fruit. It’s a simplification, but you get the idea).

Estate or Estate Bottled: Next it says Estate: You might think this means that the winery owns the vineyard or that the vines are right there by the winery. Of course, lawyers are quite good at finding loopholes. This actually requires that 100% of the grapes must be from vineyards owned or controlled (minimum 3-year contract or lease) by the winery. Also, the vineyard and winery must be in the same viticultural area (such as Napa Valley or the Oakville District). It also requires that everything from crushing to bottling was done on winery premises. 

Varietal designation Then it says Cabernet Sauvignon: This requires that at least 75% of the wine must be made of that specific grape variety. If it says “Red Table Wine”, or has a proprietary name like “Insignia”, you can assume that the wine was blended at the discretion of the winemaker. 

AVA or appellation Next, it says Napa Valley: You know what Realtors always say: location, location, location! For wine, that’s true in spades. So, this doesn’t refer to the location of the winery – you can build a building anywhere. This is about where the vines live.

To put a legally approved viticultural area such as Napa Valley, or Oakville District on the label, at least 85% of the grapes must be from that legally defined area. If the label gives you a geographical area, like “California”, the federal requirement is 75%. Individual states may upgrade, but not downgrade, and the requirement in California is 100%. But, you still don’t know much because this is such a huge, diverse state.  

When I’m looking for a bargain, I try to find well-priced wine from a smaller and highly-regarded region. I may be wrong, but if I find a Zinfandel from Lodi or Alexander Valley I feel like I’ve got a better shot at taking home something decent than I would if I bought a California appellation. 

The alcohol: Every bottle must include this, but the law permits pretty big parameters. Wines up to 14% alcohol only have to be withing 1.5% either way! This bottle says 14.2%. Above 14%, the wiggle room is 1%. 

Marketing terms Now, the bottle she asked about said “Old Vine”. Everything mentioned so far has legal requirements behind it. But “Old Vine” isn’t a regulated term. The best thing to do is just ask. This also applies to the term “Reserve”, “Special Select”, “Mountain”, “Limited Release”…

For those of you who want the real nitty gritty, I’m going to direct you to our federal government. What fun! 

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “How to Read The (American) Wine Label

  1. Thanks for the nice mention of Lodi, Nancy!Hey, do you take questions from those in the business, like me?

  2. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Hi, Jon. I actually thought of you when I mentioned Lodi instead of Dry Creek or something :-)<div><br></div><div>I'm happy to try to answer any question, but I'd be surprised if there's anything I can teach you. Fire away, if you like and I'll give it my best! Hope it's warming up nicely in Lodi. Today is our warmest so far – probably high 70s! Nice! Thanks for writing.ย <br> <br></div>

  3. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Love those Lodi Zins!! Ask away, and I’ll do my best – I’d be surprised if there’s anything I can teach you ๐Ÿ™‚ Cheers!

  4. Jon Bjork

    Here goes…I remember from my early days, just getting into wine, I took a component tasting class at Merryvale. What kept blowing all us away is that whenever we were asked if a wine we were tasting had any residual sugar, we always said, "yes." But the correct answer kept coming back as "bone dry!" So maybe you could go into the whole difference between fruit and RS.

  5. Jon Bjork

    Just reading back through your blog, I can see you pretty much already answered this on 2/7. So maybe a twist on this question would be, "Why do winemakers add concentrate to wine before bottling?" Or something along those lines! (You’ve actually covered most of the major questions for wine beginners already!)

  6. Jon Bjork

    Here’s another one: "air-oir." Barry Gnekow, a consulting winemaker for many wineries in CA, has been playing with flash detente here in Lodi, and also at Hahn Estates. He’s just about been able to prove that the legendary Eucalyptus in the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard really does come from the trees bordering the vineyard. You might want to contact him about his findings. Very interesting and leading to that odd new word "air-oir" as opposed to terroir.

  7. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Wow, Jon! You’re full of ideas and I really appreciate it! I will follow up for sure! Cheers!

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