Reading A Bottle: The Label

Knowing what to look for and where to find it on a wine label will increase the confidence and speed of your purchase. It will also enable you to buy wines which are better matched to the food, occasion and budget.

Last month we touched on learning to recognize wines quickly, looking at common bottle shapes and what they tell us about the wine inside. This month, we’ll learn how to read a label in order to confidently dismiss, buy, or compare a wine.

If you like wine from a certain region, find out what grape varieties are typically used in that region and try another wine which has the same grapes.

Typically, we want to know some or all of the following about the wine: (1) country, (2) region, (3) quality designation, (4) style, (5) grape varieties, (6) vintage, (7) producer. Labeling standards vary hugely from region to region, so reading the label is more like a knack you get from practice, not a simple matter of following instructions. Let’s have a look at a classic French label and see what we can find out:

Country 1
This information is sometimes missing from the front label. Check the back label too.

Region 2
This is from Burgundy. It’s quite a posh wine, so you’re expected to be able to read the region name in French. If you like wine from a particular region, learn to recognize the region name in the native language.

Quality Designation 3
Appellation Bourgogne Contrôlée is the local Burgundy stamp of the French AOC quality designation system. AOC is the highest designation available to a French wine, higher than Vin de Pays (VDP) and much higher than Vin de Table (VDT). That means the rules and quality expectations for AOC are the strictest. There are over 300 designated AOC regions in France. One AOC region can be inside another AOC region. For example, the Pauillac AOC region (home to the world-famous Chateau Latour) is inside the Bordeaux region. AOC wines from famous regions are likely to be at least ‘decent’ because the regional governments responsible for them don’t want to damage their reputations with sub-standard wines. Check your label for ‘Appellation [REGION NAME] Contrlée’.

Style 4
Most AOC-level wines won’t have this information on the front label. This label pictured, as a generic white Burgundy is going to be dry and unoaked, as that’s the tradition. Typically, wines which are sweet or half-sweet will say it on the label (albeit only in the native language). Don’t forget to check the back label for a description of the aromas and flavors, and a pairing recommendation.

Grape Varieties 5
Just Chardonnay. If you like wine from a certain region, find out what grape varieties are typically used in that region and try another wine which has the same grapes. If you like AOC Burgundy Chardonnay, but want a less expensive wine, try a VDP Languedoc Chardonnay instead. (Some AOC regions prohibit producers from including this information on the label, but you can generally get it by Googling the region name).

Vintage 6
Besides knowing how old the wine is, you can look up the vintage and see whether it was a good year in that region. Important for reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy especially. Not so much for most New World wines. Google ‘vintage chart’ to get started.

Producer 7
Often this is at the top of the label–EG a Chateau or Domaine. In French wine though, it’s always at the bottom as well, in a form which is traceable… if you Google the information here, you should be able to find the producer’s company quickly and easily (it’s all in French however). If it doesn’t, beware: You may be drinking fake wine. On the other hand, if the wine’s real and good, remember the producer’s name and buy other wines from the same company.

Most of us like to stick with a wine we’ve already enjoyed, and that’s fair enough. But when you’ve walked into the Aladdin’s Cave that is the wine aisle (or if you’re posh the wine merchant) and brought home a real gem–that’s a pretty good feeling too. So next time you’re tempted to grab yet another bottle of “Old Reliable,” take a deep breath and have a close look around at what else is on offer first.