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 😉 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%.