The All-Powerful Label
The label on the wine bottle (or box) is undoubtedly the most powerful marketing tool available to a winery. Unless you are familiar with that winery's unique story or reputation, the label is one of the fastest ways to connect you to that bottle begging to be purchased.
Wineries do have some control over how the label looks, but governments control the information that must appear on the label. If you understand this information, you can make more informed buying decisions.
Wine labels and the regulations governing them vary from country to country. The specific information on the label has to conform to the rules where the wine is eventually sold — not where it's produced. If a wine is sold in the same country where it's produced, it will have one label.
If the wine is also destined for export, it may well have another version of the label — and both labels have to be approved by government agencies in the countries where the wine will be sold. The single thing that all wine labels have in common is that if you see a year printed on the label, that is the year the grapes used to make that wine were harvested.
The United States
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires that seven items be included on wine labels in the United States:
Brand name — The name of the wine's producer will likely be displayed most prominently on the label. This is the brand name.
Class or type of wine — U.S. wine law recognizes five classes or types of wines: 1) fruit wine (non-grape); 2) rice wine; 3) honey wine; 4) sparkling grape wine; 5) still grape wine. The still grape wine category includes varietal wines, or those bottles that say “Cabernet Sauvignon,” “Chardonnay,” and “Pinot Noir.” Such bottles must contain at least 75 percent of the grape variety listed.
In addition, a winery choosing to label a bottle with the grape variety must also include the appellation of origin, or where the grapes came from. If a legally defined area is mentioned, such as Napa Valley, then 85 percent of that bottle must contain grapes grown in Napa Valley. If a specific vineyard is mentioned on the label, then 95 percent of that bottle must originate from the stated vineyard.
Name and address of bottler or importer — Most of the time, the bottler and the producer are the same. In this case, the words “estate bottled” will appear on the label. If the producer crushed 75 percent or less of the grapes used to make the wine, then other terms may appear.
Alcohol content of the wine — This percentage will appear on all U.S. wine labels. If a wine is less than 14 percent alcohol, the TTB allows a variation of plus or minus 1.5 percent between the alcohol content printed on the label and the actual content of the wine. For wines with an alcohol content greater than 14 percent, the TTB is less generous, allowing a variation of plus or minus 1 percent.
Sulfite statement — Since 1987 wines containing more than ten parts per million of sulfur dioxide must include “Contains Sulfites” on the label.
Health warning — Since 1989 U.S. wine labels must include a statement regarding the potential health risks of alcohol consumption.
Net content of the bottle — The volume of the wine bottle, usually 750 ml, must be included on the label.
In order to understand the degrees of specificity of French wine labeling, think of an archery target. The outer circle is all of France. The next largest circle is a region of France, such as Bordeaux. The next circle in is a district — Médoc, for example. Within that circle is the commune — say, Pauillac. Finally, the bull's-eye: the individual producer — a château or domaine. The better — and usually more expensive — the wine, the more specific is the indicated source of the wine.
Beginning with the 1946 vintage, the immortal Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux has commissioned a famous artist to design the label for each successive vintage. Artists have included Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau.
Therefore, when you buy a bottle of French wine, the producer, or chateau, will appear in the largest type on the label. As the origin of the wine becomes less specific, the type becomes smaller. Even if it is in small print, French law requires that the Appellation of Origin appear on the label if that wine has satisfied the requirements of that prestigious category.
Famous Appellations of Origin include Pauillac and Saint-Julien. Wines qualifying for the other French quality levels will have those designations on their labels — VDQS (Vin délimité de qualité supérieure), vin de pays, or vin de table. Very few of these end up on American store shelves.
Bordeaux chateaux lucky enough to be included in the famous 1855 Classification will have “Grand Cru Classe en 1855” on the label, and only the five first growths can put “Premier Grand Cru Classé” on their labels.
The name of the company responsible for that wine, bottle volume, alcohol content, and vintage year must also be included on the bottles.
To an American, one of the glaring omissions on a French bottle of wine is the grape! This seeming omission is the product of centuries of tradition and the French preoccupation with place. The lone exception is Alsace, which does include grape varieties on its wine labels. Here are some guidelines:
Red Bordeaux wines are largely made from blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc added for good measure. White Bordeaux wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc.
Red Burgundy wines are made from Pinot Noir. White Burgundy wines are made from Chardonnay.
White wines from the Loire Valley consist of either Chenin Blanc (Vouvray) or Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre). The red wines are mainly Cabernet Franc.
Red wines from the Rhone consist of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. Whites consist of Marsanne and Roussanne.
Champagnes are usually blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Italians also take seriously the French tradition of emphasizing place when it comes to wine labeling. On Italian labels, the producer tends to dominate the label, followed by the region, vintage, and quality designation (DOCG, DOC, IGT, or vino di tavola). In Italy, however, there are always exceptions.
Some regions are named after the grape variety largely grown within its borders, such as Barbera d'Asti and Dolcetto d'Alba, and this can make choosing an Italian wine easier. Other bottles list only the regions, such as Barolo (Nebbiolo grape) and Chianti (Sangiovese). Often the name of the wine itself, which in Italy usually corresponds to the single vineyard of origin, dominates the label. The following terms may also pop up here and there:
Classico: usually given to wines which epitomize the characteristics of a given region, such as Chianti Classico
Frizzante: lightly sparkling
German wine labels are among the most notoriously difficult to understand, but given the European paradigm of emphasizing place, this should make things easier. In addition, German labels also squeeze the grape variety onto the bottle. Perhaps the most difficult language to penetrate is “Qualitatswein mit Pradikat” (QmP) and “Qualitatswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete” (QbA). The former signifies Germany's highest quality wines, and while the latter can still be quite good and bargains to match, but they do not have the same cache.
A major difference between QmP and QbA wines is that the latter do not carry ripeness levels — Kabinett, Auslese, Spatlese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. This is because QbA wines may be chapatilized, or have sugar added to prop up alcohol levels. Chapatilization is forbidden for QmP wines.
Here's another clue for understanding German wine labels: In the German language, adding “er” at the end of a noun makes it possessive. On wine labels, “er” is added to the name of the town or village where the wine was made. The name of the town in the possessive form is followed by the name of the specific vineyard. So, a label that reads “Niersteiner Oelberg Riesling Spätlese” tells you that the name of the town is Nierstein, the vineyard (in the town of Nierstein) is Oelberg, the varietal is Riesling, and the ripeness level is Spätlese.
Another interesting feature of the German wine label is the 10 to 12 digit Amtliche Prufungsnummer, or AP number, which appears on every bottle of QmP or QbA wine. A wine with this number on the label has passed the official German testing procedure, and encoded in the number is the village in which the wine was tasted, the village where the estate is located, the grower identification number, the order in which the estate presented its wine to the tasting panel, and the year the wine was presented for approval.
In the spirit of their French and Italian counterparts, Spanish wines emphasize region on their labels, not the grape varieties used to make them. Quality levels appear — DOCa, DO, and vino de mesa — as do vintage years, alcohol levels, and bottle volumes.
Other terms often show up, such as Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, but these have to do with the amount of time the wine has spent aging in barrel and bottle, not the ripeness level of the grapes when harvested. The Spanish have an easier time ripening their grapes than the Germans. Gran Reservas are only made in years of exceptional quality.
Australia and New Zealand
Australia and New Zealand are New World wine regions, and one of the hallmarks of such regions is that labeling laws are much less strict. The shorter list of Australian labeling laws is managed by the Wine and Brandy Corporation. Here are the highlights:
If a grape variety appears on the label, 85 percent of the wine must consist of the named grape.
If a growing region appears on the label, 85 percent of the fruit must come from that area.
If two wines are blended together to form a single wine, and neither one accounts for 85 percent of the bottle, they must be listed in descending order of percentage. For example, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon has more Merlot than Cabernet.
Australia's neighbor, New Zealand, shares the same laws, except the percentages drop to 75 percent.
Argentina and Chile
Argentina and Chile are South America's premier growing regions, and they are firmly ensconced in New World traditions. Chilean wine law is the product of conversations between wineries, the Ministerio de Agricultura, and the Servicio Agricola Ganadero. Seventy-five percent is the minimum proportion for varietal, vintage, and place of origin.
Argentina's wine laws could not be more removed from the traditions of Europe. The major standard in the wine industry, as required by the Instituto Nacionale de Vitivinicultura, is that if a grape variety appears on the bottle label, 80 percent of the wine must be composed of that grape.