What the heck does this wine label say?
We will try to provide some useful information in deciphering wine labels. However, countries make it difficult with different wine labeling laws and standards.
So let’s start breaking down the wine label by the following countries: France, Italy, Germany, and United States.
France has one of the most detailed wine labeling laws. The front label can you tell you exponential things about a wine. However, you might have to know where certain regions are in France.
The first key words to look for are Appelation Controllee/Protege (AOC/AOP) (see above). This will tell you about the growing region. The growing region will always be directly above those words. In this example, Pauillac is the growing region. (A growing region in Bordeaux) The other major name mentioned is the producer, Chateau Haut-Batailley.
Quick Note: Chateau versus Domaine - Chateau actually means that the entire wine process is done on site – picking, vinification, and bottling. Unlike Domaine which doesn’t always their own bottling.
The vintage (year on bottle) is common throughout every country. It indicates the year that the grapes were harvested.
What about varietal? We are used to knowing the grapes found in American wines. French labels are allowed to put grape varietals on the bottle, but most will not. Each French growing region has been regulated to what grape varietals they may grow. So some knowledge is necessary for each region and their primary grapes. For example, Chablis is primarily the chardonnay grape and Sancerre is primarily the sauvignon blanc grape.
Italy only has two requirements for the front of a wine label, producer and growing region. Grape variety is not mandatory.
You start looking at a Italian wine label, much like a French one. Look for the Denominazione di Originie or Vindo Di Tavola (Table Wine). This will designate the growing region. This bottle is Brunello di Montalcino.
The producer can be tricky to find since Italian labels often have a brand name. For example, Tenuta means the winery. Therefore, Col D’Orcia is the producer. We would also look for bottling messages that may also mention the producer by name. Poggio Al Vento is the brand label.
Riserva does have meaning in this occasion. In Italy it means that it has a minimum of 1 more year of aging.
Germany has one of the more complicated wine labels. We will try to break it down into a simple example.
Germany has a 4-tier classification system. Tafelwein- Table Wine. Deutscher Landwein – German country wine Qualistatewein – wine from a specific region Qualistatewein Pradikat – distinctive wine
These labels can be found anywhere on the label, but the growing region is not always found directly above. (unlike Italy and France)
Germany has 13 growing regions which will break down the growing region to the vineyard level. The growing region on this label is the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which is one of the most popular. Each vineyard has a name. The key thing finding the village and vineyard name is a word ending in -er (the town or village) followed by a the vineyard name usually ending in -berg. This wine label shows the vineyard name of Schlossberg from the town of Zeltinger. Couple exemptions – Orsteil is an estate having the privileges of a village. On the label, no village name occurs, there are about 200 Orsteils in Germany. And Grosslage or Badstube is a grouping of vineyards where the wine can come from any of them. Therefore the label will show the village + Badstube.
Therefore the producer is Selbach-Oster. We might think that we could be done, but Germany also adds the ripeness level of the wine.
Key terms to know in ripeness level are the following :
- Kabinett – slightly sweet light wine.
- Spatlese – Late harvest wine
- Auslese – Special select late harvest wine
- Beerenauslese and Eiswein - Very late harvest and sweet wines.
- Trokenbeerenauslese – selected late harvest dried beery like grapes.
Dry and Sweet Wines
Any of these styles above can be dry or sweet. However, Germans add a couple labels to help a buyer know.
- Trocken (dry) – is less than .9% residual sugar
- Halbtrocken (medium dry) – .9% – 1.8% residual sugar
One final thing about German wine. Erzeugerabfullung – a wine that is grown, produced and bottled by the estate.
The United States has a much more loose wine labeling system compared to its EU counterparts. The American Viticulture Area is a classification system not a quality classification. Hierarchy is based on smaller areas producing more ‘distinctive wine’. Requirements to become an AVA are the following: a delimited grape growing area, must be locally or nationally known, and distinguishable from surrounding areas (can be man made boundaries).
American Hierarchy (7 levels): % of grapes
American AVA – some % each state Multi-State AVA – some % each state State AVA – 75% (100% in CA, OR 95% WA) Multi-County AVA – 85% County AVA – 75% Individual AVA- 85% Registered Vineyard (not an AVA) – 95%
Registered vineyard does not mean that only one grape is grown in the vineyard and does not mean that the vineyard is small. Not an AVA – therefore AVA name must appear on label.
What grapes are inside the bottle? Naming a varietal means that a minimum of 75% of one grape. Blend – no one grape is 75% and percentage of each grape is listed. Proprietors brand name – does not have to show variety or blend.
What does this label tell us? 1973 was the year of the harvest. The registered vineyard is the Stag’s Leap vineyard, but the AVA is Napa Valley. It has at least 75% of Cabernet Sauvignon in the bottle. Finally, it is produced and bottled by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
Produced and Bottled? What does this mean?
United States bottling statements are defined:
Think of the first two as a Chateau:
Estate Bottled: 100% of grapes owned and bottled by producer Grown, Produced and Bottled by – 100% owned or controlled (51% in contracts)
Proprietor grown : 100% grapes owned by producer, bottled by others
Others or Négociant houses:
Produced and bottled by : 75% or more is crushed and fermented by producer Vinted and bottled by: 50-74% crushed and fermented by producer Made and bottled by: less than 50% crushed or fermented by producer Cellared and bottled by: all wine purchased from others, blended and bottled by Bottled by: wine was made by one entity and bottled by another entity
We understand this is an overwhelming amount of information, but feel free to take notes and reference before your next trip to the wine shop.
Get educated and enjoy, cheers!