Label Lingo

Choosing a wine is often as much about the packaging as the information the producer provides.

As you might imagine, I get a lot of requests for recommendations for wines that typically go something like, “Can you tell me a great Cabernet for under $40?” or, “Name a Pinot Noir for 30 bucks!” While I love to give advice (as my wife loves to remind me, I usually suggest asking the retailer because inventories vary from store to store, state to state, country to country. On the occasions I check in with those who’ve asked me for help, they send a picture of the bottle they found, and the ensuing discussion often reveals that they chose the bottle because they like the appearance of the label, such as the typeface, graphics or overall design. Ultimately, if I keep pressing to ask if their choice was entirely superficial, most admit that they had little else to go on because they didn’t understand the label lingo.

“By familiarizing yourself with the essential information and practicing, you can become a more confident and knowledgeable wine consumer.”

Understanding wine bottle labels can be really confusing, and it doesn’t help that the information required by law varies between the New World (which includes the winemaking countries in North America and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) as well as the Old World (which encompasses all countries in the European Union and beyond). To make it easier to decipher these labels, here’s a breakdown of the essential information you’ll find and some tips for understanding what you’re reading.

In the New World

  • Winery/Producer Name The winery or producer responsible for the wine, often prominently displayed.
  • Grape Varietal Many New World wines prominently display the grape variety or varieties used to make the wine. For example, ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ or ‘Chardonnay.’
  • Vintage The year the grapes were harvested is important for understanding the wine’s age and potential characteristics. No vintage indicates a blend grapes from different years.
  • Alcohol Content The alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage is usually shown.
  • Region New World labels often specify the region or subregion where the grapes were grown. Knowing the region can provide insights into the wine’s style and quality.
  • Country of Origin This is typically stated to comply with legal requirements and to help you identify the wine’s source.
  • Additional Information Some New World labels may include additional information like the winemaker’s name, tasting notes, or certifications like organic or biodynamic.
In the US, in particular, you might also find:
  • Appellation of Origin This indicates where the grapes were grown. It can be as broad as a state or as specific as a sub-region.
  • Health Warning A warning about the dangers of drinking while pregnant or operating heavy machinery.
  • Sulfite Declaration If the wine contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfites, it must be declared. (For the record, ALL wines contain sulfites.)
  • Government Warning A statement regarding the health risks associated with alcohol consumption.

In the Old World

The EU, on the other hand, has a more structured approach to wine labeling. While there can be variations among individual countries, a label typically includes:
  • Designation of Origin This provides information about the wine’s geographical origin, which can range from a specific vineyard to a broader region.
  • Quality Designation Wines can be classified into different quality categories like PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), or Table Wine.
  • Grape Variety If the label specifies a grape variety, the wine must contain a minimum percentage of that grape.
  • Alcohol Content The ABV is indicated as a percentage.
  • Producer Information This includes the name and address of the producer or bottler.
  • Lot or Batch Number For traceability.

Ultimately, making sense of wine labels is a skill that improves with experience. By familiarizing yourself with the essential information and practicing, you can become a more confident and knowledgeable wine consumer. But while you’re practicing, I’ll go back to my initial advice: Talk to your retailers to get direction, guidance, and some insider information. In fact, building a relationship with your local retailer can be really beneficial, as they may keep you in mind when special bottles arrive, or when something you like goes on sale.