How to Read a Wine Label
Picture this scenario: you’re at your local grocery store wanting to simply pick up a fun, new bottle of wine but you take one look at the gibberish on the wine label and don’t even know how to begin understanding it. We have all been there — even me! Here’s the thing, being able to read a wine label is not going to magically help you know everything there is to know about the wine, but it will help you get a good idea of exactly what wine you are buying and where it’s from. It’s easy to come by information on how to taste wine and understand the general characteristics of different wine varieties, but we don’t see many people talking about how to break down a wine label for the average wine enthusiast. Don’t fret; I am going to show you how to read a wine label in a few simple steps, making your next trip to the wine aisle less stressful and more informed. Why should wine be stressful anyway? No one has time for that; wine is meant to be fun and enjoyable!
Before we get started, let’s answer the question of the hour: should we judge a wine by its label?
Well, as much as I am a sucker for a pretty label, it’s not an accurate indicator of the taste or quality of the wine. I have disliked wines with beautiful, fancy fronts and adored wines with pretty much just a single line drawn across the bottle (that creative team clearly harbored a penchant for minimalism). I will say, wine producers are increasingly attempting to create wine labels that visually communicate characteristics of the wine inside the bottle. After all, as consumers, we naturally shop with our eyes before our taste buds, right? So, I am not saying to altogether rule out the aesthetic merits of the wine label, but do take it with a grain of salt, and keep reading to learn how to interpret the label.
I will be going into detail on how to read a wine label based on region; however, some important tips to remember right off the bat when shopping for wine are to scout out wine varieties to which you tend to gravitate, regions you enjoy, and alcohol content you prefer. Once you get to know your palate better (achieved by tasting more wines of diverse varieties, styles, and flavor profiles), you’ll be able to quickly identify out which wines you will love when shopping! Practice makes perfect when it comes to knowing wines and what you like to drink. Yes, I am telling you to drink more wine. It’s educational!
Old World Wine Labels vs. New World Wine Labels
First, let’s begin with breaking down the two main types of wine labels you will notice while shopping: wines with a label design highlighting brand name and wines with a label design highlighting appellation qualification. In a nutshell, the former indicates a New World wine and the latter indicates an Old World wine. Let’s first break down the difference between the terms Old World and New World so we can better understand the labels.
How to Read an Old World Wine Label
Old World wines are any wines made in Europe. For example, wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland would all be considered Old World wines. Old World Wine regions have specific standards in place that a wine must adhere to in order for the region to be placed on the label. These are things which grape varieties are allowed to be included in the wine or and which winemaking methods are allowed to be utilized. Old World wine labels indicate region name rather than grape varietal, with Germany being the exception. Are you still with me? How about an example? You might find the following when reading an Old World wine label: name of the wine region, name of wine producer, name of the winery/chateau/etc., and wine classification label (usually on the neck of the bottle and main label: i.e. A.O.C., D.O.C and so on).
How to Read a New World Wine Label
Let’s move on to the New World! A New World wine is basically any wine that’s not made in Europe. For example, wines made in North America, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand would all be considered New World wines. These wine labels are classified by the grape variety which makes reading the label a bit easier in my opinion. At first glance, when picking up a New World wine, you might find the following on the wine label: grape variety, producer/winery name (i.e. Kendall-Jackson), fanciful name (i.e. Vintner’s Reserve), vineyard, wine region name (i.e. Sonoma County).
Wine Label Requirements
Now that we know the main differences between reading an Old World wine label and a New World one, let’s talk about some other wine label requirements. These requirements vary depending on where a wine is made (are you noticing a trend?). Don’t worry, we won’t make this too complicated.
Most European wines must include:
- The name of the product category of the vine. For example: still wine, sparkling, liqueur wine, etc.
- Alcohol percentage (ABV)
- Indication of provenance wines with an AOC, AOP or IGP, the name of the country of origin must appear on the label (ex: “produced in France” or “wine of France”)
- Allergens (ex: “contains sulfites”)
- Health warning statement
- Sugar content (this applies to only sparkling wines!)
Phew, that was kinda a lot. Now you can impress your friends with all of this wine knowledge! But we’re not done yet.
Here is what’s required for a New World wine, specifically one made in California:
- Brand name
- Wine type
- Producer and bottler
- Alcohol content
The below items are optional, but most wine labels will include them:
- Vintage, aka the year grapes, were harvested
- Fanciful name (the name the winery’s marketing team came up with to
- sell the wine)
- Vineyard designation (where the grapes for the wine were grown)
- Special designation (ex: private selection or reserve). For example, K-J Grand Reserve wines include the CCSW (California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance) certified logo. To learn more about what is required for a wine to have a CCSW logo click here.
I will conclude this by saying that as a sommelier, I still need to refer back to the basics when reading new wine labels. It can get confusing with all the different wording depending on where the wine was made! The more you shop for and try new wines, the easier it gets. I highly recommend next time you’re at a winery or wine shop, ask someone to go over the wine label with you. The passion to learn and be educated about the wine you are consuming is contagious, and any winemaker, sommelier, tasting room host, or wine buyer would be more than happy to share as many details as they can with you.
Cheers and happy drinking!
Looking for more information about wine? Check out Kendall-Jackson's entertaining page!
Samantha Capaldi is a certified sommelier, blogger, wine event specialist and recipe developer based in Phoenix.