Wine Label Literacy: Making Sense of the Vinous Verbiage

red label-bottle comboEver bought a wine based strictly on its shelf appeal? Hey, that’s all right; a lot of labels are nothing short of dazzling! We hear that some wineries even go so far as to make the entire bottle impossible to resist….

But labels can be much more than a pretty face: A wine label can also impart useful information that can inform and guide your purchasing decisions while deepening your wine understanding.

As you’ve probably recognized, wine labels vary dramatically, but in the U.S., there are some basic label rules enforced by a government outfit called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB, as everyone in the business calls it). TTB requires every label to state:

  • Brand name
  • Produced and bottled info – who and where
  • How much wine is in the bottle, and how much alcohol is in the wine
  • Wine type
  • Government notices – sulfites and health warning

Brand name is self-explanatory, but the question of who made the wine can be trickier.

“Produced and bottled by” means the company in question made the wine, period. But sometimes you’ll see “cellared and bottled,” which means somebody else made the wine. Doesn’t mean it can’t be a good wine. There’s a long history of savvy folks –  “negociants” – finding great overlooked juice and giving it a good home.

Regarding alcohol level, this is the percentage of the wine that is alcohol, of course. What you might not know is that there’s some wiggle room to account for the difficulty of nailing down a precise figure for every bottle.

If the alcohol level is given as 14% or less, the actual amount could be 1.5 percentage points higher or lower, although it can’t stray above 14%. If you see a figure above 14% on a bottle, the actual level has to be within 1 percentage point, plus or minus. There is one circumstance in which you won’t see a numerical alcohol level on a wine bottle – for wines designated on the label as “Table Wine.” Those wines can be anywhere between 7% and 14% alcohol.

“Table wine,” by the way, fulfils the “wine type” requirement, as could the terms “red wine,” “white wine,” etc. Wineries can also check off on this requirement by stating the grape composition of the wine – say, “Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (35%), Shiraz (5%).” as above.

Or the winery can give the wine what’s known as a varietal name, say, “Chenin Blanc,” as with the protea white. The federal standard is that a wine has to contain 75 percent of a particular variety in order to get a varietal name. So that “Chardonnay” you see on the shelf might actually be 75% Chardonnay and 25% who knows what!

That said, many wine regions enforce higher standards. In South Africa, “Wine of Origin” regulations require varietal wines be made from at least 85 percent of the named grape, meaning a South African Chenin Blanc is made from at least 85 percent Chenin. The protea Chenin Blanc, as the label indicates, is all Chenin.

white label-bottle combo

By the way, that’s what the “W O” means on the protea label: “Wine of Origin.” This refers to a whole set of rules that South African wineries follow, apart from any U.S. labeling standards, to ensure you can trust what you’re drinking.

You’ll also notice that the protea label contains the words “Coastal Region.” This indicates that the grapes were grown in this subset of the larger Western Cape area. Under TTB and regional rules, determining places of origin can get a little complicated, but generally the amount of grapes required from a named place ranges from 75% to 100%.

The vintage date of a wine – 2012, in the case of the Chenin Blanc label shown here – is determined by the year the grapes were harvested. A vintage date ensures that at least 85% of the grapes that went into the wine were harvested in the stated year.

Finally, there are the health-related notices, including one that sometimes causes misunderstanding: “Contains Sulfites.”

For years, this was something people noticed seeing on wines in the U.S., but not elsewhere. This wasn’t because only wines in the U.S. contained sulfites; sulfites are a naturally occurring byproduct of the winemaking process and winemakers everywhere have long been adding sulfites to protect their wines against spoilage. It’s just that the U.S. was early in warning about sulfites – the levels of which are much lower in wine than in many, many commonly consumed foods, by the way (like dried fruit, french fries and soda).

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