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How to Read a Wine Label

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Wine labels are the only way you can tell what’s in the bottle, unless you have a recommendation from a wine critic or a friend. You’ll find the hard obligatory information such as the alcohol content and the volume as well as the softer non-regulated content explaining how the wine should taste, what foods to drink it with and what temperature it’s best to serve it at.

Don’t be fooled by the label on a wine bottle. Always look at them with a cold, hard eye. Price is the most reliable indicator of quality. In Ireland for example the taxes on a wine bottle stay the same for an inexpensive bottle of wine or a really expensive bottle of wine. So once you remove those taxes, then what’s left is the wine you are actually paying for.

How can the label help or hinder you?
The more expansive the description on the back of the label, the more you need to be wary. Phrases like ‘a wine that goes down easily’ really means ‘buy two, we’re bundling a cheap offer, this one will last Tuesday through to Wednesday when you want to forget a bad day at work’.

‘A wine to quaff with friends at dinner’ is a ‘no-no’. No-one ‘quaffs’ in real life: it’s a snobby word  and its aim is to get you to think the wine is posh too. It rarely is. These labels are written by marketing people not wine producers. Authentic small wine producers use their own language. If you’ve ever met a wine maker they don’t speak in the vernacular of middle-class aspirations. They speak in wine language and a wine bottle that mirrors the language of its maker is often going to have more character than one that is the brainchild of a wine brand. The exception are the cheap wines that are coming out of Burgundy or the low-level Chablis that are being sold in some supermarkets. The label has all the hallmarks of a good wine but again price is the best indicator and if a Burgundy or Chablis is selling too cheaply (no matter how authentically the label reads) there may be a flaw in the wine that precludes it from being sold at its true price.

Wine Bottle Labels

Front Labels
The front of the wine bottle label has to bear certain information including the name of the wine, the bottle size, the vintage (if relevant), the alcohol, the producer’s details, the name of the bottle and importer, the name of the shipper (if it’s not the winemaker), the country of origin, the wine’s region and appellation if it is relevant and whether it contains sulphates. It may also carry an award badge.

French Wines
Mis(e) en bouteille(s) au château on a bottle of french wine tells you that the wine was bottled at the winery.

Back Labels
The obligatory information that the front bottle label has to carry doesn’t leave much room to sell the wine so the wine producer adds a back label which tells you more about the qualities and uses of the wine: the grape variety, what food to drink it with, how to serve it, how long it will keep and how long in advance to open the wine to allow it to breath.

Neck Labels
Neck labels are often added for marketing purposes or to make the wine stand out on the shelf. It may be used to tell you about an award, a competition you can enter, an offer to engage with the producer or a special offer. Unless wine labels tell you about a special feature of the wine, they are not much help in choosing a wine other than to tell you that the wine will costs a few cent more to cover the cost of printing the extra die-cut collar.

Grape versus Producer – New World versus European
New world producers sell their wines based on grape varieties rather than place of origin, so that consumers who like a certain grape, say Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay can follow the grape rather than the wine maker. French and other European wine producers tend towards promoting the winemaker or place of origin, though more recently, some winemakers are adapting the New World system to compete.

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CURATED WINE WEBSITES YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN
Decanter Wine Magazine
Master of Wine and renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson’s website
Read wine reviews from the Irish times wine correspondent John Wilson 

Photography copyright foodpixies.com

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