How to Read a Wine Label


Dontcha just love this label?!

So, what do all those designations on it really mean? For today, let’s just take a look at American wine labels. Fortunately, the regulations behind other new-world labels are extremely similar – how convenient! The old world is quite another matter.

The Brand
Of course, this is self explanatory, although don’t forget the “virtual” producer, which doesn’t have a brick and mortar winery. There are lots of them and these producers are usually so small that they can’t justify building an actual winery. They use a “custom crush” facility like Napa Wine Company (really fun tasting room, BTW!) or use another winery’s equipment. 

Also, restaurants and some stores may feature their own brand. In that case, most likely, they’ve contracted with a winery to produce their wine. I assume that’s true for most celebrity brands, too.  

The Appellation of Origin
When you see a place name such as Oregon or Alexander Valley it refers to where the grapes were grown, not the location of the winery. The government calls this the appellation of origin. To me, this is a make or break issue – some growing regions are a heck of a lot better than others.

If it’s a very general appellation, like the name of a state, this is just a geographical declaration and the minimum requirement is 75%. Individual states my upgrade, but not downgrade, the requirement. For instance, if the label says California, 100% of the grapes must be California grown.

For very specific locations the requirement goes up to 85%. These specific names, like Stag’s Leap or Russian River are usually government approved American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs for short. This is viewed as a step up in the world of appellations. To get an AVA approved the region has to make a case with the federal government that the region is already recognized as a well defined winegrowing region, if not to the nation, at least to the locals. You have to draw boundaries that make sense (and that aren’t too hotly contested) and convince them the the region is distinct from its neighbors in terms of soil, climate, exposure, elevation…  

If there’s an actual vineyard named, like Martha’s Vineyard, the requirement goes up to 95%. In general, the more specific the appellation the more distinctive the wine. There are tons of exceptions.

Varietal Designation
When you see a grape, like Chardonnay, named on the label, the minimum requirement is 75%. The winemaker might take advantage of that 25% leeway to make the wine better balanced, more complex, or to save money! Chenin Blanc grapes cost a lot less than Chardonnay. Last time I checked, Petit Verdot was the most expensive grape in Napa Valley. Traditionally, it’s Cabernet.

Proprietary names, like Opus One or Insignia, allow the winemaker to blend as she pleases, as long as she limits it to grapes 😉 Same is true of the above, “red wine” designation. 

Vintage Date

 This is like putting up jam – it refers to the harvest date and the wine reflects the result of the weather patterns that year, for better or for worse. Thus, the reference to a “good year.”  

For general appellations the minimum requirement is 85%. For AVAs it goes up to 95%. This little bit of leeway allows winemakers to use a previous vintage to top up their  barrels or something like that.

Well, this will surprise you. If it’s less than 14%, the government allows a 1.5% leeway! So, if the bottle says 12% the wine could actually be 10.5 or 13.5%! It’s supposed to save on labeling costs, but my goodness – that’s a big leeway! Over 14% the allowance is 1%.  

These days, I find myself checking the alcohol frequently, in spite of the allowance, because so many wines, especially warm-climate wines, are really high octane! 15%! 16%! Yikes! I want to be able to stand up after dinner! 

Then, there’s some interesting stuff in the fine print: 

Estate Bottled
I think this was originally meant to imply that the winery used its own grapes, which were grown on winery premises. But, in reality, the language states that the winery only has to “control” the vineyard. The minimum qualification for “control” is a 3-year contract with a grower. 

The wine has to be processed all the way from crushing through bottling on winery premises. Oh – and the winery and vineyard must be in the same AVA. 

So, I could buy grapes from a grower in Yountville for my St. Helena winery and say that the wine is Estate Bottled because we’re both in the Napa Valley and I’ve been working with this grower for at least three years. 

Produced and Bottled By
At least 75% of the wine must have been fermented on winery premises but it can be cellared, aged and bottled elsewhere. 

There are other designations like “Cellared By”, “Bottled By”, one of my favorites is “Perfected By”. These designations usually imply that the winery named on the label didn’t necessarily do the whole job, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a winery just a few miles from here that uses only their own grapes and make the wine at the winery. But the bottling facility is on one of their other vineyard sites. So they have to say “cellared by”. I guess what I’m saying is don’t  sweat the small stuff. 

And, then there are some real gems: 

This is a good one. There are no legal requirements behind the term in the US. Let the buyer beware! 

Old vines
There’s no definition for old vines at all. My five year old vineyard is older than it used to be, right? 😉

Special select, mountain, limited release… These are all marketing terms. Happy sipping! 

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