Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re all set to purchase a bottle of wine, but you’re overwhelmed by the variety. A bottle catches your eye. Maybe it’s the label, or the shape, or the color. You pick it up and read, and then put it back because you’re not entirely sure what you just read.
You try the same thing with a couple more bottles and then shrug, give up completely on trying something new, and grab a bottle of the old standby that you know you like because you’ve bought it 100 times before.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could actually discover your own great wines without having to become a sommelier first? There’s a lot of information on a wine label that can help you choose a wine wisely, if you know what you’re looking for.
Normally, the most prominent thing on a wine label will be the brand name. This is the name of the producer of the wine, the folks who grew the grapes, but can also be the bottler’s name if no other brand is designated. That’s right, you might be surprised to learn those who grew the grapes aren’t always the same people who bottled the wine! Vineyards might have their own winery, but can also sell grapes to wineries that lack their own acreage, or sell wine to be cellared or bottled elsewhere. The bottler must be named on the label, and the way they’re named (“bottled by” vs. “cellared and bottled by,” for example) will tell you what their role was in creating the wine.
A designation of “estate bottled” means the producer grew, crushed, fermented and bottled all the grapes in that bottle on the same property, which is typically a good thing because it’s more likely to have gotten the attention it deserves from vine to wine. Look for contact information such as a phone number, a web or mailing address, even a proprietor’s name. These details indicate a personal touch and can add to the experience of discovery, as do any stories or descriptions that might be included on the label on the back of the bottle.
Another basic but very important thing you’ll notice right away is the type of grape (cabernet, merlot, moscato, etc.), and therefore the type of wine that the bottle contains. This is usually in bold print and/or all caps so it’s easy to spot. Sometimes this information is simplified to something like “red table wine,” but if a varietal name is specified, at least 75% of the grapes must be of that type.
You should see the volume of the bottle (usually 750mL), as well as the Alcohol by Volume (ABV). This varies from near 5% for very light and sweet wines to the low 20s for some of the fortified wines like sherry or port. Fortified wines are wines to which a neutral spirit has been added to increase the alcohol content. For most American wines, the number will hover between 13.5 and 15.
As in real estate, much of what makes a wine great is location. The label can not only tell you the vineyard, but also where the vineyard that produced the grapes is located. Don’t assume that “California” necessarily means Napa, by the way. The soil and climate in Napa are well known to be ideal for growing, so if your wine hails from there, it will almost surely specify. Whichever vineyard is named, know that at least 95% of the grapes used in that bottle had to come from there for it to earn a spot on the label.
Also keep an eye out for so-called special designations, which are intended to tell you special qualities of the wine. While these can sometimes be informative, note that they are unregulated. “Private reserve” might sound good, but it doesn’t really mean anything, since there are no rules that govern which wines can be labeled as such. The same goes for “vielles vignes,” or “old vines.” Theoretically the older the vines, the heartier and more complex the grapes, and thus the wine. But the lack of established guidelines for what constitutes “old” renders this descriptor virtually meaningless.
You’ll also probably see a year designating the vintage, or the year the grapes were harvested, though this isn’t mandatory. Perhaps the most common mistake people make when purchasing wine is to look for an older vintage, assuming that older means better. By most estimates only about 1% of wine is meant to be aged, so generally speaking, you want to buy fresh and drink soon, preferably within five years or so. After that, a lot of wines actually suffer and deteriorate in quality, but best-case scenario is there will be no change. So unless you’re really splurging, save some money on the wine cellar you’d planned and buy a nice wine fridge instead.
Luckily, now you’re ready to fill that wine fridge up. Good luck, and happy wine hunting!