Choosing a wine can be a daunting task. Red or White? OK, simple enough. California, France, Italy, Spain, South America, or Australia? OK, still manageable. Now that we have it boiled down to a French red, we are still faced with an infinite amount of choices. HELP!! Not to fear, knowing a little something about the wine label may help. First, be weary of misleading labels. From time to time, words and phrases may appear on some labels that have no technical or legal definition.
Some inferior vineyards may assign verbiage on labels such as “Barrel Select”, “Cellar Selection”, or “Proprietors Reserve.” Should you buy “California Merlot” or “Napa Valley Merlot.” It’s important to decipher what verbiage is important and what is meaningless.
Basically, you are looking for four pieces of critical information when reading a wine label. What country the wine was made and its appellation. (That is, a designated wine region) Secondly, what variety of grapes that were used. This is more predominant in “New World” labels but is rarely shown on French wine labels because the French labels tend to focus on exactly what region those grapes were grown in rather than the types of grapes themselves. The next most important item on the label is the name of the producer; and the year that grapes were harvested.
If we are choosing a domestic wine, we will know the type of grape used. Familiarize oneself with the grower/producer to gage the quality of the wine. Upon choosing a French wine, familiarize with the better regions. All of the major wine growing areas of the world have undertaken some quality classification of wines to guarantee to the consumer that what they buy is what is written on the label. Most classification systems are based on the French system of Appellation Controlee (AC) which specifies the exact origin.
For example, red wines from Bordeaux from one bank of the river will be most likely Merlot grapes, as opposed to the other side of the river having Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. If you’re a history buff, than familiarizing with old world wine regions can be interesting learning of history as well as wine knowledge.
The term “estate bottled” is legally defined in the United States as wine made from grapes owned by the winery or a vineyard totally under the winery’s control. In France the term “mis en bouteille au chateau” means the same thing. The French AC laws have primarily been adopted by most of the other European growers such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Germany and Austria have a different system, however. Australia, South Africa, Chile, and the US have less strict quality laws. The American system is referred to as “American Viticultural Areas” (AVAs) and simply defines geographical areas and slightly refers to different climates and soil types.
The most important information on the wine label is what country the wine was, its appellation, variety of grapes, name of the producer and the year that grapes were harvested. Everything else mostly just PR and BS.
They say ignorance is bliss. So perhaps not knowing the intricacies of the wine label will make your decision less complicated. But as a fictional soldier once said, “Knowing is half the battle.” Or in this case, knowing is half the bottle! Cheers!