From Our Cellars

Wine Labels for Dummies

Posted September 11, 2012 in The Connoisseur Says...

Fans of fine wines are a funny bunch.  They’ll travel far and wide and spend ridiculous amounts of money for the bragging rights of having drunk particular vintages.

We like the bragging rights of having been drunk, but that’s another matter.

So we came across this article about a great wine aficionado with a taste for expensive burgundys.  This guy bought and sold huge amounts of wine during a very short period, at some points spending over $1 million a month.  In a couple of auctions in 2006 he unloaded over $35 million worth of vino.  One of the bottles sold at auction was a 1929 Ponsot Clos de la Roche grand cru.  The only problem for the anxious seller was the presence at the auction of the proprietor of Ponsot, who knew that they didn’t make that at his winery until 1934.


Seems that this intrepid steward had been buying decent wines, printing some fancy looking wine labels, and pasting them onto the bottles, all in order to sell them as something fantastic that most wine fans would drop millions on.  And drop the moolah they did.

We have very much the same conundrum every time that we walk into the grocery.  So many wine labels, so little knowledge.  So what do you look for when you browse the label?

Is it wine?  If it says “vinegar” you’re in the wrong aisle.  Just to make this simple, though, we’ll assume that you’re shopping for a domestic wine.  With very few exceptions, your wine should have a designation somewhere on the label that says, “Merlot” or “Chardonnay” or “Pinot Grigio.”  This is going to tell you what sort of grape was used to make the wine.  Different grapes will produce different wines, so this is the “variety” or “varietal” of the wine.

Next, in big, bold letters, you should see the name of the winery.  This may be accompanied by a colorful logo or pictures of kittens, but don’t let a fancy graphic fool you.  The simplest of designs may hide a wonderfully complex wine.  You may have enjoyed a wine from a particular vineyard before.  It’s perfectly fine to go back to that vineyard again.  If you liked the cabernet, you may also like their zinfandel.  And while some vineyards will do a bang-up job with reds, some do a great job with wines all across the color spectrum.

Vintage.  This is often the money question, and often the one that trips most wine buyers up.  There are certain years that have produced exceptional wines, and others that, due to acts of nature or some other hindrance, are better off being labeled “vinegar.”  But most general buyers of wine aren’t in it for the long haul.  Most of us are buying our wine to drink, so don’t worry so much about the age.  Wines older than three or four years are, in fact, often not much better than ones that are a suspiciously fresh vintage.  A general rule of thumb for something decent is usually around two years.  Not so terrible twos, we say.

Without doing a whole lot of research or straining at the eye chart on the back of the bottle, you can usually find out where the grapes were grown.  On the front of the wine label, usually somewhere on the bottom, most self-respecting vineyards will tell you where they’re from.  If it says, “California” it may indeed be from the Golden State, but that’s a big place.  You would be better served if it read, “Napa Valley” or “Sonoma.”  The more specific a vintner is with a label, the more likely that you are to get a good wine.  If they’ve put some care into the process, they like to brag, and that doesn’t have to cost you a million bucks.

Everything sold in the United States will show an alcohol content.  We actually like the taste of wine, so that warm, fuzzy feeling is kind of a fringe benefit.  The higher the alcohol content the more biting and astringent the taste.  If that’s what you’re looking for, go to another blog and drink tequila.  Not that we don’t enjoy a nice margarita, but this is wine we’re talking about.  Anything higher than about 14% by volume is going to quickly preclude you from operating heavy machinery.

There is a subtle art to fancy nomenclature.  They’re kind of the campaign promises of the wine world.  You’ll see things like “barrel select” and “reserve” and the like.  These usually mean that they selected these grapes and reserved the right to make your wine.  In other words, not a hill of beans.  If it were a hill of grapes, it might be another story, but it’s not.  If you see something about being bottled by the vineyard or a reference to the estate, it’s a better sign, because it means that the vintner put more care and thought into the bottling, and likely handled the whole thing in-house.  And that’s good.

Reading wine labels need not require an advanced degree or a class from a culinary school.  You just have to know what to look for.  And after all, it’s really about what you want to drink, isn’t it?

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