How to Read a Wine Label
I know we aren’t meant to judge a book by its cover, but knowing how to read a label can be very helpful when you aren’t familiar with a wine.
Here in Australia, a wine label must include the volume, country of origin, alcoholic content, allergens, standard number of drinks, an address… basically everything! It also usually includes the producer or brand name, vintage, region and grape variety. Labelling requirements vary from place to place, but every bottle has a least a few of these items, making it possible to tell a lot about a wine before even cracking it open.
Reading a wine label can tell you a lot about what’s behind the bottle
Here’s a few main things to look out for:
Region or grape variety
- In the case of Old World wines, the region where the wine is produced is usually listed on the label; this implies that a certain grape has been used (i.e. Chianti uses Sangiovese grapes)
- New World wines list the grape varietal on the bottle – i.e., Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Shiraz, etc.
Brand name or appellation
- European wines also often have an appellation designation, or a quality designation, certifying that a wine has been grown, produced and bottled in a certain location under certain conditions
- These grades differ from place to place, but common ones include superior or vin de table, or specific appellation designations like AOC and DOC
- Having these specific appellation certifications means the winemaker has followed a strict set of rules and produced the wine in a particular place under particular conditions with particular grapes; for example, Barolo is a DOCG certified wine always made with the grape Nebbiolo
- All bottles will include alcoholic content (often abbreviated “ABV”) in percentage, usually ranging from 13.5-14.5%, but sometimes going as high as 17%
- When I pick up a bottle and know nothing about it, ABV is one of the first things I look for – usually wines that are less alcoholic, 13-13.5%, are less fruity because the grapes were less ripe (likely grown in cooler climates); conversely, wines that are upwards of 14% were produced with riper, sweeter grapes, resulting in a fruitier wine
- The year listed on a bottle, or vintage, indicates when the wine was harvested
- If you get to know your wines, you’ll start to pick up on vintage patterns – for example, 2011 wasn’t a good year for Victorian wines; you probably also already know that wines that have aged quite a bit will be more expensive!
- You may also see “NV” on the label – meaning non-vintage; these wines use grapes from multiple vintages
Brand or producer
- Usually the brand (typically in New World wine production) or producer (more common in Old World wine production) will be a focal point on the label
- Knowing producers and brands will come over time as you drink more wine, and you’ll even come to recognise certain vineyards in which the grapes are grown
- Generally, the more specific the label is (i.e. when the producer and vineyard are included) the more expensive a wine will be; wines without this info are probably from multiple vineyards, or a blend, and are likely cheaper
It’s always a good idea to ask your somm about information on a wine label that you are unsure about
As with anything, practice makes perfect – the more labels you analyse, the better you will become at reading wine labels. At the end of the day, though, tasting wine is the best way to know if you’ll like it or not!
Let’s move from labels to wine glasses – see which glasses you should be using and when it’s appropriate to decant.
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